January 09, 2012

Robertson: Syria appears divided

Ever since the Syrian unrest began 10 months ago, it has been difficult for the rest of the world to verify reports from inside the country.
The government has been placing restrictions on international journalists and refusing many of them entry at all.

But just recently, short-term visas were issued to a number of journalists so they could follow the dozens of Arab League monitors already in the country. The journalists' presence was demanded by the Arab League as part of its agreement with Syria, according to Nic Robertson, CNN's senior international correspondent.

Robertson and a CNN crew are among those in Syria right now. Their equipment was confiscated on arrival so that no live video could be transmitted, but Robertson spoke via phone on Monday to share what he has seen.

Reports say that since March, thousands of people have been killed by Syrian security forces despite ongoing international pressure to stop the crackdown. Death toll estimates range from 5,000 to 6,000.

Nic Robertson: We were able to go with some monitors (Monday) as they went to witness and record the funeral of a young man who the crowd there, just on the outskirts of Damascus, said was shot and killed by forces loyal to the government.

We were able to see a body of a man who appeared to be 32 years old. We had been told that he had been killed while walking down the street. And the monitors took information from the family of this man.

The crowd there, perhaps 1,000 to 2,000 people, gathered and chanted for an overthrow and an end to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. They said that if the Arab League monitors weren't there, that they wouldn't be out on the street, that they would be too afraid to demonstrate in this way.

And then as the Arab League monitors drove off to another area, within half a mile -- less than a kilometer away -- a small pro-government rally had formed in the road, blocking their way. And people were chanting in support of Bashar al-Assad.

CNN: How much access is the Syrian government giving you and our CNN crew in Damascus? Are you able to talk to anyone you want to, go anywhere you want? Or are your movements controlled?

Robertson: At the moment, the government has told us that we are free to go and follow the monitors. There are areas of the country that they say are too dangerous for us to go and that they're trying to organize a secure way for us to get there: for example, to Homs, where we know there have been ongoing demonstrations and the Free Syrian Army say they at least control one neighborhood. ...

But it's too soon to say what the restrictions are that will be placed upon us. Certainly today, we had no problems following monitors into what was a virulently anti-government rally: people showing us shotgun marks, injuries that they say they had sustained at the hands of forces loyal to the government here. So we've had no problems so far in reaching those types of places and, likewise, meeting with people who are loyal to the government and interviewing government officials. We've met no limitations, but these are early days, and the situation could change.

CNN: What's so extraordinary about these protests?

Robertson: At the anti-government protest of a couple of thousand people ... passions were very high. People were very angry; people were very afraid. ... Yet at the same time, in central Damascus today, we've seen large pro-government rallies telling us that they love President Bashar al-Assad.

What is happening here is, this country is divided. It's polarizing. People are believing opposite things: Some believe that the president is the right man for the country. There are others who don't. They're not talking to each other. And this is leading to a much more divided country than a few months ago.

CNN: So what do you see as the future for al-Assad at this point?

Robertson: This is a leader at the moment who appears to be able to weather this storm. He has the loyalty of a significant part of his army. They're able to put down at the moment and prevent any growth of the revolt against him.

Then there is obviously the opposition who is living, they say, in fear of the government. So actually, what we can see is the divisions are going to get deeper.

The Arab monitors who are here ... are largely seen as ineffective. The language that they use, they do not criticize the government here even though the government hasn't met what the Arab League is telling it to do in terms of pulling weapons and troops off the street.

The divisions are getting bigger, and I think we can expect the situation here -- at the moment, stable -- to deteriorate in the future. That's the direction it's going in.

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