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Syria On The Brink Of Civil War?


For a closer look at the chaos in Syria, we turn now to Jon Lee Anderson. He's a reporter for The New Yorker magazine, and last month he spent time in Syria, reporting on the rapidly devolving situation there.

We reached him at his home in England, and he told us about one moment that has stayed with him - his visit to a place called Clocktower Square, in Homs, the site of intense clashes over the past year.

JON LEE ANDERSON: This was the heart of the city and there were, literally, no people around. The bus pulled alongside a building, and we were told we had - literally, five minutes. As I came back to the bus, I saw a large man with a beard and a stocking cap on, speaking in very good English but clearly, in a state of hysteria - almost asphyxiating with emotion. He couldn't - the words didn't come out. When they did come out, he was saying, what are you doing here? What are you doing here? You have to go there, over there; Baba Amr - to these neighborhoods, not here.

And he was speaking of the Sunni neighborhoods across the sectarian lines and in the city, which is, of course, the ones that are precisely besieged now. And then someone said, what are you afraid of? And he said; I'm not afraid of the soldiers with helmets, but the ones who wear sports clothes - I'm afraid of them. And he was referring to the secret police that we'd all seen.

And indeed, as we spoke - and I looked around the edges of the crowd and suddenly, there were 15 or 20 strange, very, very scary looking men who had moved in. And they were, you know, whispering to each other. They were looking at him very, very aggressively. And I thought I was witnessing a man basically committing suicide.

Finally, we were pushed in the bus and in the kind of commotion, I couldn't see what happened to him. But just as we left, he yelled out, take my name! take my name! Otherwise, I'll be on the death list tomorrow.

I've heard through activist circles in London that that man was actually a very prominent lawyer. I don't know if he's still alive but that he was able - somehow, he managed to be taken away by his friends before he was grabbed. But he could no longer go back to his home after that moment. And he was taken to one of the secure neighborhoods controlled by the Free Syrian Army.

MARTIN: Through your reporting, you explored the different factions that make up the opposition in Syria. Who are these people? Do they have a cohesive agenda?

ANDERSON: They lack a cohesive agenda beyond the fact that they want to see the end of the Assad regime. It is a disparate and far-flung welter of merchants, politicians, poets, villagers, former soldiers. This is an opposition that is broadly civic. The full range of Syrian society, the people that began demonstrating against the killings, have, you know, led to a groundswell of civic opposition to the regime.

And it's particularly strong amongst the Sunni Muslim majority, who have provided most of the victims because they were the loudest protesters against this government - which is, of course, led by the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam. So are there Islamists in the opposition? Yes, they are. Is it al-Qaida led? No, it does not appear to be. For the most part, it is a broad cross-section of Syrian society.

MARTIN: More than one person that you spoke with in Syria claimed that the collapse of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad would essentially mean the beginning of civil war there, even genocide. Is that hyperbole?

ANDERSON: The people that I spoke to close to the government- and who spoke on behalf of the government in Syria - strenuously made the point that they were facing, they felt, a sectarian insurgency. And they made the point that, you know, that the government may have had flaws and made mistakes, but what they needed now was time to make reforms then. So the violence had to stop so that they could make these badly needed reforms.

And I - whenever I came into contact - and I did, several times - with the members of the Free Syrian Army, those fighting in the suburbs and in some of the insurgent-held towns, I asked them if they were sectarian and what they felt about Alawites. And it was clearly a subject that was delicate for them. Most tried to explain away the sectarian nature of the conflict by saying that, you know, it's not all against Alawites - our violence; we're defending our people. But we're against those Alawites who are in power.

This is the kind of thing that one can only see how it will go as the conflict develops. But if it becomes a full-blown civil war - and it's on the verge of that now, I would say - it will have a sectarian side to it.

MARTIN: That's Jon Lee Anderson, reporter with The New Yorker magazine. We spoke to him from his home in England. Jon Lee, thanks so much.

ANDERSON: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.