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Syrian Violence Intensifies As Observers Arrive


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. This has been the bloodiest week in Syria since an uprising began last March. Reports of army massacres in northern Syria, with more than 200 dead have sparked outrage around the world. Yesterday, in Syria's capital of Damascus, two explosions killed more than 40 people and injured over 100. The Syrian government said that al-Qaida suicide bombers had targeted a security headquarters in one of the best protected neighborhoods in the city. Now, all of this takes place in a week that an advance team from the Arab League arrived to set up a monitoring mission. NPR's Deborah Amos is in Beirut. She's been doing some monitoring as well and joins us from Beirut. Deb, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: A mass funeral is being held today for those who were killed in the attacks. As we keep emphasizing, the international press is not allowed into Syria. As you can tell from your monitoring station there in Beirut, what's the mood?

AMOS: Syrian television has been running over and over again the photographs from yesterday of mangled bodies, burnt cars, and the mood is, I think, that the revolution has come in one way or the other to Damascus.

SIMON: So much has happened over the past week. Is this a new phase in the Syrian crisis?

AMOS: I think we have to say that the death toll has shot up dramatically. An explosion in Kfar Suseh - that's an upscale neighborhood - that's unprecedented. And the blame game started almost immediately. Within a half hour of the blast, the Syrian government said it was al-Qaida and the opposition accused the regime of orchestrating the events. Now, Washington condemned the bombing very strongly, as did the French government. What the French said though is they accused the regime of hiding prisoners ahead of this Arab League monitoring mission. But Syrians who live in the capital have to be thinking that if there was a massive bomb that targeted a security headquarter that there's something that's happening with security in the capital. I also have to say that there are more deaths reported in northern Syria. That's where the army is continuing an operation today.

SIMON: Let me get your analysis of this, Deb, because anti-government activists in the capital and elsewhere suggest that that operation by the government in the north is an attempt to crush the revolt there before this Arab League monitoring mission arrives.

AMOS: You know, Scott, it's possible that this operation in the north may just have its own internal logic. The Arab League peace plan calls for Syria to withdraw all troops, release all prisoners. But analysts say that if the Syrian army withdraws from these cities, then those protests will swell again. That's exactly what happened over the summer when the army withdrew from the city of Hama. So, if Syria fully implements the Arab League peace plan, it's likely that the regime would lose control of much of the country, certainly the cities outside the capital, and that would spell disaster for the Assad regime.

SIMON: We're told that the advance team from the Arab League arrived this week and monitors are scheduled to actually begin their work within a few days by the end of the year. What are the chances they're going to have any effect?

AMOS: Well, I think this drama is going to play out pretty quickly over the next few weeks. On the first day of their work, the Arab League team was escorted to the bomb site in downtown Damascus to see the aftermath of that suicide attack. Now, this event fits into the regime's narrative that there is no popular uprising but rather Syria is under attack from armed Islamist groups backed by an international conspiracy. But what happens when they want to go north, say, to Idlib? And that was the scene of these reported massacres this week.

So, the fact that Syria agreed to the mission is a sign that the regime is under intense pressure. We know that the economy is faltering. Some analysts suggest that signing on to the Arab League plan was a stalling tactic. And the Arab League secretary-general, Nabil Al-Araby, said that it would be apparent in a week if the Syrians are serious about implementing the plan. Everybody is watching what happens in the next few weeks, and it will determine what the next steps are in this Syrian crisis.

SIMON: NPR's Deborah Amos in Beirut, monitoring the situation in Syria. Thank you very much.

AMOS: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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