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Syrian Rebels Regroup After Army Gains Upper Hand


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Western governments are still debating whether to help Syria's rebels. But as they debate, the rebels are finding ways to help themselves.

INSKEEP: Syrians continue arming themselves, even after they retreated from the battered city of Homs. This week, the United Nations' humanitarian chief finally toured that city, including a rebel neighborhood, now mostly abandoned.

MONTAGNE: The rebels are elsewhere and they're Free Syrian Army is preparing for a longer fight.

NPR's Kelly McEvers reports from their supply line in nearby Lebanon.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: When we first met a guy I'll call Ahmed, he had just been to Western Union to pick up about 8,000 bucks in American currency. He showed us the waybill, donations, he said, from well-off Syrians living in Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia.

AHMED: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: The next time we meet Ahmed, it's at what he calls the gun resort.

Right, so we are in a hotel room, let's just say a seaside hotel. The view is actually quite nice. The pool has long been dry. It's a bit of a rundown hotel, I wouldn't call it a resort anymore. Looks like these guys have been refugees in this room for a while.

Ashtrays are full, empty paper coffee cups are everywhere, underwear is hanging up to dry. The gun resort is a place where Ahmed and other Syrian activists organize the transport of weapons, sat phones, and medical supplies into Syria to rebel forces known as the Free Syrian Army.

With shaky hands and a nervous laugh, Ahmed shows us what's in his backpack.

That's a grenade, OK. So we're opening the plastic bag and we have more grenades, bullets, a clip for the grenade.

The scene around Ahmed could not be more shady. Kalashnikov bullets, yep. At one point, a guy with an eye-patch comes to the door. Sitting on the couch is a well-dressed man, Ahmed calls the doctor. Outside, a BMW pulls up with guys asking for money.

Still, Ahmed says the gun trade is slow these days, that despite the fact that the supply routes are open into Syria, the rebels desperately need supplies. He says, for all the talk that Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are planning to arm the rebels, so far it's been just that - talk.

AHMED: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: No one from the outside world is helping us, Ahmed says. We can only depend on ourselves and God.

ABU ARAB: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: This man, who goes by the name Abu Arab, was a commander in the one-time rebel stronghold of Baba Amr. Then both of his legs were shot up. Even though he's now outside of Syria, he keeps the shades drawn in his hospital room, still afraid there might be snipers.

ARAB: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Abu Arab says the thousands of rebels stationed in neighborhoods and towns throughout Syria are trying to regroup. He says the plan is simple: To do their best to gather more weapons and ammunition and continue holding these neighborhoods and towns, protecting people who go out to protest, and setting up checkpoints so security forces can't come and arrest and torture civilians, believed to be against the government.

ARAB: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Abu Arab believes it's a strategy that could eventually work, given that the Syrian army is already stretched so thin. After all, he says, it took the army a month to retake Baba Amr, which is just a small neighborhood.

This strategy puts the rebels in a predicament, though. On one hand they're seen as brave for standing up against the Syrian army for so long in Baba Amr. But they're also polarizing the anti-government movement. Analysts say the movement's so-called silent majority - in major Syrian cities like Damascus and Aleppo - don't want the kind of destruction they saw in Baba Amr, where hundreds of people died. So, they might remain silent.

The losers in all this are the civilians, the unarmed women and children who die while the rebels stand off against the government.

This BBC footage shows tired, hungry people escaping Baba Amr on foot at night. They say government soldiers are mopping up the area, detaining and sometimes killing males over the age of 14. While the people won't criticize the rebels who they see as their protectors, they ask how long this violence can continue.

Day by day, it's getting increasingly harder to reach these civilians and hear their stories. Just this week, Syrian authorities blew up a bridge that refugees were using to escape.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.