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Along Syria's Coast, Some Cheer Russia's Bombing Campaign


Let's hear what it's like to live beneath Russian jets and bombs in Syria's war. We've seen Russia's intervention in terms of geopolitics and photos at the U.N. Vladimir Putin, Syria's ally, maneuvers against President Obama.


For a different view, we called on a Syrian-American journalist. Rasha Elass lived for years in Damascus and got out last year. This week, we asked her to contact people in different parts of Syria to get a picture of life in the country she knows. One place she called was Syria's Mediterranean coast, where support for President Bashar al-Assad is strong. It's where Russia has a naval base. It's where Russia has based its plans. And it's where billboards have long shown pictures of Assad's ally, Vladimir Putin.

RASHA ELASS: I'm talking huge billboard - huge, maybe the size of a 5, 6-story building, you know, just by the sea. And now, apparently, people who live there tell me that the pictures of Putin are everywhere. They're on cars.

INSKEEP: Stick it on the side windows or on the passenger side of the windshield - that sort of thing.

ELASS: Absolutely, stick it on the wall, stick it on the door of your apartment building with pro-Assad slogans, like, this is how real men act and just sort of local, you know, macho pro-government slogans, yeah.

INSKEEP: So when you called out to that area, in the last day or two, to ask what people were thinking now that the airstrikes by Russia seem to have begun, what were people saying in that area, that pro-Assad area?

ELASS: Well, you know, one Alawite lawyer I spoke to, he said that when the Russians carried out the airstrikes, some people were jubilant. There were some celebrations thanking Russia, coming up with all sorts of slogans - we love you, Putin - that sort of thing. You know, that's of course - that's the one side of the story.

INSKEEP: So there are fans of Putin around the Russian military bases in the western part of the country and the coastal area of the country. Some of the Russian military strikes have been in the area of the city of Homs, which is a little ways inland and where there are many different rebel-held areas. What did you hear when you began calling out to that area?

ELASS: Yeah, I spoke to rebels in that area and sort of the rural area of Homs who say there is not a single ISIS presence that they're aware of. And the people I spoke with are completely perplexed as to how is it that the U.S. and its allies are allowing the Russians to strike positions of rebel brigades that are supported by the U.S. and Western allies and Arab allies.

INSKEEP: Is their fear about the Russian intervention that Russian weapons or Russian warplanes could materially change the course of the war?

ELASS: It's very scary from that perspective because people have gotten used to the Syrian airstrikes. You know, they know the Syrian warplane. It flies relatively low. It flies slow enough that they can follow it with their naked eye. They hear it before it arrives. And people somehow have learned to live with it. Some people have dug shelters under the ground. It's where they keep their children when they hear the plane. Then they come right back out, go buy tomatoes or something.

But they said there are major differences between the Russian and the Syrian warplanes. The Russians fly in twos. They fly really high. You can't always see them. You can't always hear them before they strike. They tell me it's a completely different feel. It's a different sound. Even the ground shook. I mean, they - this one man described it as just an earthquake that happened again and again and again and again in one day. It was just beyond frightening.

INSKEEP: Now, you also reached people in the capital city, Damascus. And we should specify - very large city. Some parts of the outskirts, the suburbs, have been rebel-held for years, and the center city, of course, is firmly held by the government of President Bashar al-Assad. What did you hear from people there about the Russian intervention?

ELASS: You know, it's funny because I speak to people there quite often. And now with the Russian airstrikes, people are depressed, and they're gloomy. And it's just so difficult from their perspective to see the light from where they are right now. This has taken the conflict to a whole new level. I mean, first it began as an uprising, then as a civil war, then as a regional war. Now it really is something of a miniature world war. That's how one person put it.

INSKEEP: Fighting an insurgency takes an unbelievable number of soldiers. And an analyst was telling us on the program that Syria's military is beginning to run out of recruits. He even speculated that many people who have become refugees may be fleeing being drafted into the Syrian Army. What does that look like and feel like on the streets?

ELASS: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I have several friends there who have military-age sons, and to be honest, you know, they go to bed worrying about it. They wake up worrying about it. They try to keep their 25-year-old sons at home, which is very difficult to do just because they don't want them being drafted. And this does happen.

Every now and then, authorities will draft anyone who looks military-age off of a public bus, off of the street - just grab you, put you in the military. And this happens all the time, and it's not even an exaggeration. If you're a military-aged man in Syria in the government-controlled areas, you are in big, big trouble 'cause you better be in hiding or you'd better be willing to join the army and join the war.

INSKEEP: Is Damascus - central Damascus crowded because people have fled from elsewhere, or emptying out because so many people have fled the country, been drafted into the Army or killed?

ELASS: You know, in some strange way, Damascus has been emptied from its original residents and now has many new residents who have been displaced from other areas. And those who remain in Damascus - and they're usually elderly and whatnot - they - you know, they look around and their city is unrecognizable in many ways, including the faces they see on the street and the faces they no longer see on the street because everyone around them - the butcher has left. Their carpenter has left, their neighbor. The superintendent in their building and his wife and five kids have left. So it's an overcrowded ghost town, if that makes any sense.

INSKEEP: Journalist Rasha Elass, thanks very much.

ELASS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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