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Syrian Rebels' Gains Could Be Due To Influx Of Weapons


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The struggle for Syria continued this past week. Since the conflict has now moved beyond the two-year mark, hopes for a political solution have ebbed and flowed with no clear end in sight while tens of thousands of people have died. This week, the violence continued even on the campus of the main University of Damascus when a mortar attack killed at least 10 students at an outdoor cafe.

In a moment, we'll hear the story of a Syrian-American doctor. He's part of a group that has found a way to help at home. But first, the latest from the ground where rebels fighting to bring down President Bashar al-Assad celebrated an important military victory. NPR's Kelly McEvers is following developments from Beirut. Kelly, we're at a point in this conflict where the rebels are getting more logistical support from outside countries. Has that made a difference yet?

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: It's hard to tell if the regime's core strength is eroding, but what we are seeing are tactical gains on the ground by the rebels. Recently, the rebels took the town of Dael in southern Syria. This town is located on a highway - a key highway - that goes from the capital Damascus all the way down to the Syrian border with Jordan. This is a point of resupply for Syrian troops who are fighting against rebels in southern Syria, and basically this the first time that rebels have been able to control such a place in the south. We've seen them do it in the north and the east quite a bit over recent months but this is really their first major gain in the south. It comes, as you said, as there's more logistical support for the rebels. We know that Croatian anti-tank guns and rockets are being sent to the rebels now with the tacit support of the United States via Jordan being purchased by Saudi Arabia. It's all part of a slightly changed U.S. policy on Syria, which is, you know, we're still pushing for a political solution in this country, whereby, you know, President Assad basically negotiates himself out of the presidency. But if he's not willing to do that there will be more pressure on him on the battlefield.

MARTIN: I would like to ask you about that attack we mentioned on that outdoor cafe which happened to have been housed on a campus of Damascus University. The attack killed at least 10 students. Symbolically, what does this strike say about where the conflict is at?

MCEVERS: Well, it's definitely this kind of violence that makes, I think, everyone more weary of sending more weapons into Syria. We have seen attacks by the regime on institutes of higher education in the north, namely in the city of Aleppo. This attack, it happened at an open-air cafe in the architecture department of Damascus University. Here's what the aftermath sounding like on Syrian state TV.


MCEVERS: You hear a lot of shouting as bodies are basically being hauled into ambulances. Photos later showed, you know, chairs and tables overturned, blood on the ground. No one's claimed responsibility for this but the government says it was the work of, quote-unquote, "terrorists." This, of course, is the government's phrase for anybody who, you know, opposes the state. It's likely the work of rebels. They have been shelling into the center of Damascus in recent months, mostly as a way, I think, to show we're here, we're coming for you. Most of the time the rebels are targeting, you know, sort of military and government outposts. It's very unclear at this point whether they were actually targeting the university or whether it was a way to get a position to target something else later.

MARTIN: Also, this past week, a U.N. official suggested that Western powers should consider imposing a no-fly zone over Syria. Kelly, why is this significant?

MCEVERS: I mean, up 'til now you got NATO, the United States and its allies in the West all saying that a no-fly zone was off the table for Syria. And here for the first time you've got this high-ranking general, Norwegian General Robert Mood. He headed a U.N. supervision mission in Syria last year to oversee a cease-fire that was negotiated that never happened and to document some of the violence in the country. And basically what he was saying is that, you know, with the Syrian government using airstrikes and even scud missiles on predominantly civilian areas, it is time for the rest of the world to step in and change that. And here's what he said to the BBC's "Hard Talk" program.


MCEVERS: When he's talking about Patriots, he's talking about these surface-to-air missiles that NATO already has positioned in Turkey. Right now, those missiles are to protect Turkey from attacks by the Syrian army. But what he is suggesting and what others have suggested in recent weeks is that these Patriots could also be used to protect Syrian airspace, to stop Syrian planes and scud missiles from dropping bombs on Syrian territory. He's saying this could protect civilians, it could eventually tip the balance against Assad, again, prepare the way for that political transition that sees Assad out of power. And this is something we've been hearing, a request we've been hearing from Syrian opposition figures and increasingly from some U.S. politicians as well.

MARTIN: NPR's Kelly McEvers in Beirut. Thanks so much, Kelly.

MCEVERS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.