Middle East
6:57 am
Sat August 31, 2013

U.N. Inspectors Leave Damascus

Originally published on Sat August 31, 2013 10:59 am

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. A team of U.N. chemical weapons experts left Syria and are on their way to Europe, leaving Syrians wondering what might happen next in their country. President Obama says that he's considering what he called limited and narrow action against the Syrian regime. Yesterday, the administration laid out its evidence that Bashar al-Assad's government was responsible for chemical attacks that killed 1,400 civilians. Administration officials say that the large-scale use of chemical weapons cannot go unanswered. NPR's Peter Kenyon is following developments from nearby Lebanon. He joins us from Beirut. Peter, thanks for being with us.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: What do you hear from inside Syria?

KENYON: Well, we spoke with an activist in Damascus this morning who says there's definitely a sense that something is imminent. A lot of people are staying home, more so than on a usual weekend morning. The military's continuing its assault on rebel-held suburbs of the capital. There's been airstrikes and shelling reported in the Kabun and Sayeda Zainab neighborhoods. Soldiers have been evacuated from their bases. They've taken over about a dozen schools and universities. Weapons have been moved. There are shortages of bread and other staples. Even rebel fighters have been moving, especially those from the Islamist branches from the Nusra Front and others. They're apparently worried that they might be targeted as well. The mood is tense, although as Syrians wont to do, they also are showing their sense of humor. The activists we spoke to said their friends are joking that they ought to be reimbursed for all the coffee they drink waiting up all night for the strike.

SIMON: The White House released a declassified intelligence report last night that presented its evidence that Syrian government forces used chemical weapons. The Syrian government responded late last night. What did they say?

KENYON: Well, they reject this assessment. They say it's old news, it's not true, it's fabricated. And they are warning that any strike against Syria will be first and foremost a service to Israel. That's something we've heard in the past. And it comes despite the fact that Israel was early on quite anxious about the Syrian uprising, with some officials preferring the devil they know of President Assad. But this intelligence assessment has showed pretty much a tremendous scope of intelligence gathering. And it said there were clear signs in the run-up to the incident 10 days ago that it was the government preparing to use these weapons. The estimate of more than 1,400 dead is also surprisingly high, higher than what we've seen from human rights groups so far. I guess we have to note for the record that high confidence in this context, which is what the intelligence report says, means that's the highest degree of certainty they can come up with short of confirmation. So, there is still an element of trust involved here and that has been lacking.

SIMON: What do you hear from other countries in the region?

KENYON: So far, not a single Arab state has come out publicly in favor of a strike on Syria, limited or otherwise. In the region, only Turkey is backing intervention. We are getting comments from unnamed Arab diplomats and other officials saying that a number of states, such as Saudi Arabia, for instance, would like to see a response to Bashar al-Assad. But they find it a very sensitive situation because of the possibility of this spiraling out of control and potentially reaching the Gulf.

SIMON: What about Turkey? That's a country you know well, seems to have a central position in this concern.

KENYON: Turkey has been one of the most enthusiastic and aggressive supporters, in fact has been quite critical of the West for not doing something sooner. And, of course, it's not certain that something's happening even now. But if it does, Turkey will be completely on board, despite the fact that the public is very nervous about spillover violence. They've already seen it, as has Jordan and Lebanon. And they're really worried about the possibility of even chemical weapons coming across the border.

SIMON: Any concern about the number of refugees being increased by any U.S. strikes?

KENYON: There are clear signs that that would be likely. The Turks and the Jordanians and the Lebanese are already bursting at the seams with their capacity. And the possibility of another big increase with another fall and then winter coming is certainly going to add to the strain among the neighbors.

SIMON: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Beirut. Thanks very much, Peter.

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