Syria Crisis: Assad's Revival Suggests Long War

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Announcer: The following was recorded at 4:00 PM eastern time.

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. Numbers can be deceptive, and the number of 93,000 dead in Syria doesn't help really to make sense of the suffering there. But one stat today caught our eye. During the bloodiest month of the war in Iraq, July, 2006, 3,500 people were killed. The death toll during a typical month in Syria's civil war surpasses 5,000, and there seems to be no end in sight. If anything the Assad regime appears to have been given a new lease on life following the intervention of the powerful Lebanese Shiite militia, Hezbollah.
Borzou Daragahi covers the Middle East for the Financial Times. So the U.N. today reported a toll of 93,000 since the war began in Syria, Borzou. That's just the cases they've fully documented. The true toll could be three times as many. Where is this war going?

Borzou Daragahi: You know it's really hard to say at this point. There's a few things that we can establish. One is, as you've pointed out, thanks to the intervention of Russia, Iran and its ally Hezbollah, Bashar al-Assad's regime seems to have a new lease on life. It seems to have gained some tactical wins including taking over the city of Gasare(sp?), which was a key transit point. But also from what I've been hearing, the intervention of Hezbollah into this conflict injects a kind of tone of professionalism in the Syrian armed forces that wasn't there before.
Let me give you an example. I was in Lebanon just recently during the time when there was this fighting going on along the border, and the Hezbollah guys were actually taking the injured people from the other side to hospitals in Lebanon. That doesn't make them humanitarians; it just makes them professionals in the art of war. They didn't kill off these prisoners, something that we haven't seen at all before when it comes to the Syrian regime. And this could be a game changer because Hezbollah actually knows how to fight and win wars.

Werman: And, I mean, as far as Hezbollah's reputation from the Syrian rebel's point of view, if you even see Hezbollah coming do you kind of back away?

Daragahi: I mean, it depends on how good of a fighter you are and how tightly organized your unit is, but you know, that is a possibility that the rebel's, after this particular lesson, the will in the future back off from any confrontation with Hezbollah. Although I would say that the level of fighting is so fierce, and the determination of the rebels, at least some of the groups is so strong that, you know, we didn't see any evidence of them backing off in this particular fight.
However there was something that sort of showed the fragmentation and the disadvantages of the rebels. There were reports that in the battle for Glasare (sp?) that units from other parts of the country were coming to Glasare (sp?) to help the rebels fight against this Hezbollah backed onslaught. And in the end they didn't show up. Like the fighters from Aleppo who were very robust, very strong, very well equipped relatively, they ended up not wanting to risk giving up their territory in Aleppo to come and help these guys down in Glasare (sp?). And that's a really bad sign for the rebels.

Werman: Not to mention their public image is kind of taking a beating right now. Reports of atrocity seem to be increasing including the well documented killing of a 14 year old boy in the streets this week. Tell us about that?

Daragahi: This was a terrible incident, apparently, and this is pretty well documented. Apparently a 14 year old boy was selling coffee on the streets of Aleppo to make a buck or two, and someone asked him for a free cup of coffee. And he replied with something like even if the prophet Mohammed himself came and asked for a cup of coffee I couldn't afford to give it to him because I have to make a living. And someone overheard this comment, some very hardcore Islamist rebels. They went and they kidnapped him, roughed him up a bit, and then they took him to the center of the square where his relatives were looking on and they shot him dead for taking the prophets name in vain, as some sort of religious retribution. And this just really shocked people.
You know, I've been talking to some Syrian opposition folks in recent days and weeks, and even people who are very supportive of the Syrian rebels, they seem to have run out of excuses to justify some of the excesses of some of the rebel groups.

Werman: Meanwhile Borzou, there's been more talk of regional escalation. You're in Cairo right now, how worried are your friends back in Lebanon?

Daragahi: No, I think just all throughout the region this whole conflict has exacerbated sectarian tensions between the Sunni and the Shia, this is emerging in Iraq, this is coming out in Lebanon, it's becoming an issue in the gulf. There's a lot of anger on the part of, especially of Sunni's. They see this intervention by Hezbollah and Iran as a blatant sectarian meddling in the character of the Arab world. And I think that it's a very dangerous dynamic that's unfolding here. There's a lot of worry, a lot of concern all throughout the region, some of it irrational, about this sort of Shia menace. This is largely thanks to what's happening in Syria.

Werman: Borzou Daragahi of the Financial Times in Cairo.