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Fighting In Syrian Capital Remains Intense

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held an emergency meeting with her Russian counterpart in Dublin Thursday to try to reach new consensus on how to end the Syrian conflict. A prominent human rights group has put the death toll in Syria at 42,000 people killed in the nearly two years of fighting there — which began with a series of political protests, and turned into an armed rebellion.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. A prominent human rights group has put the death toll in Syria at 42,000 people killed in the nearly two years of fighting there; which began with a series of political protests, and turned into an armed rebellion. Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held an emergency meeting with her Russian counterpart, in Dublin, to try to reach a consensus on how to end the Syrian conflict.

NPR's Kelly McEvers is monitoring the news from Beirut, just next door to Syria, and joins us to talk about it. Good morning.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: First, inside Syria, fighting is still very intense in the capital. Is there any sense of who's got the upper hand there, in Damascus?

MCEVERS: In the past week, the rebels - fighting to bring down the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad - have made a pretty major push in the capital, Damascus. They've seized new bases; they've seized weapons that once belonged to the regime. And they are moving into some new territory. But I think we have to keep in mind that the regime is pushing back. You know, as much talk as there has been, in recent days, that the rebels are gaining the upper hand, the regime still does have control over central Damascus and many military bases there.

You know, the rebels did try to do this once before, back in the summer - in July. And they were fairly easily routed from the capital, by the regime. I do think they've made improvements since then. But I don't think we're looking at what some people are saying is a Libya-style march to the presidential palace; where the rebels sort of seize control over the regime, and the regime falls. I think what a lot of analysts are saying these days is that it might be a much longer, bloodier, sort of protracted fight, like the one we've seen in Syria's largest city, Aleppo. I mean, that battle's been going on for months - with no end in sight. So I think what a lot of people are saying now, is that a military solution is not the only way for this regime to fall. There's going to have to be a political solution as well.

MONTAGNE: Well, what came, then, of Secretary Clinton's meeting with Russia's foreign minister?

MCEVERS: We know that they met for 30 or 40 minutes last night at a hotel in Dublin, with the U.N. envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi. They said publicly that they are working on a political transition for Syria. Up till now, the two sides have been really divided. You know, the U.S. says that any transition, in Syria, has to happen without Assad - without Syrian President Assad. Russia says the transition has to happen with him. There have been signs, in recent days, that the Russian position is shifting; and that they are saying that now, Assad does not have a place in this transition. So what the reports are - is that what they're working on, what they started in Dublin - and the conversation will continue over the next days - is what this kind of transition could look like. Analysts say some of the big questions facing the two of them are whether Iran would be involved in that.

Analysts say some of the big questions facing the two of them are whether Iran would be involved in that - you know, considering Iran has propped up the Assad regime, I think the U.S. is loathe to include Iran in that conversation. And the other question is sort of, you know, once they agree on a transition, will Assad - will he agree to it? Does Russia have the leverage with him, to convince him to leave?

MONTAGNE: And Kelly, earlier this week, a high-profile government spokesman left Syria's capital rather hastily. Some say he was defecting. Not exactly clear what was going on there, but what's the latest?

MCEVERS: You know, there have been reports, in recent days, that he fled to the United States. There have also been reports that he fled to the U.K. Now, officials in both countries are denying that. Both are saying, we don't have him. So honestly, we just don't know where he is. And we still don't even know whether he defected, or simply - whether he was fired from his job and fled. What we do know is that there's now a flurry of meetings going on among other defectors, high-level defectors from the Syrian government, who are part of the newly formed national coalition - this is the new opposition group that was formed in Doha. These meetings are taking place now in Cairo. And the opposition is working to come up with an interim government; basically, a transitional government that could take over if - and when - the Assad regime falls.

All of this is ahead of the so-called Friends of Syria meeting next week in Marrakesh, in Morocco. Secretary of State Clinton is expected to attend. The United States is expected to recognize this group. And there's also talk that the rebel militaries are looking to sort of nominate a new leader for themselves. So there's a real flurry of activity on the political front, right now.

MONTAGNE: Kelly, thanks very much.

MCEVERS: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Kelly McEvers, speaking to us from Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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