Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In Syria, Arab League Observers Caught In Crossfire

Despite the presence of an Arab League monitoring mission, Syrian security forces shot dead at least 40 protesters on Thursday, according to activists.

The opposition movement in Syria has been critical of the Arab League, saying they appear to be more sympathetic to the government. But with the monitors in at least a couple of cities, the demonstrators have been emboldened, taking to the streets and filming violence.

The Arab League observers were caught in the crossfire while on a mission to Homs, a city at the center of the protest movement.

Heavy gunfire forced them to take cover in an alleyway with what appeared to be local residents. The video, posted on Wednesday, shows the observers, in distinctive orange vests, scrambling to safety.

Another video, from the same day, shows citizens from Homs approaching the monitors, carrying a child who had been shot dead.

The lifeless body was placed on the hood of a car for the monitors to inspect.

Syria's uprising has been called the YouTube revolution because of the distinctive videos documenting state violence against peaceful protests.

Now, protesters are using the same techniques to try to break through official control of the Arab League monitors, says activist Rami Jarrah.

"The citizen journalists have ... taken things into their own hands. The people on the ground now are playing a big role and are making sure that the observers do their work properly," Jarrah says.

More Arrests

But it's not without risks: Security forces arrested at least three people in Homs after they talked to the Arab League team, according to multiple sources.

On Thursday, the observers also visited the city of Hama, where more than 90 people died in an August crackdown, but activists say they weren't able to talk to the monitors there. One man, who is part of an underground organizing group and does not want his name used, says the fear of arrest was too great.

"We have a problem: That we can't communicate with the inspectors. The inspectors are all the time watched by the regime thugs and shabiha," he says, referring to pro-government militiamen.

The monitors are in Syria to assess the government's pledge to withdraw troops and tanks from city streets. That's why it's important to interview the local people, according to the underground organizer.

"We want to show the inspectors the tanks that are being hidden in the kids' hospital and the civil defense building in Hama," he says.

How much can the observers see while escorted by security police? It's hard to tell in the first days of this unprecedented mission. But the criticism is growing, as well as alarm over the profile of Mustafa al-Dabi, a Sudanese general heading the Arab League team.

He is the former intelligence chief of a government accused of genocide in Darfur. Arab newspaper editorials have highlighted his career and asked if he was the right man for the job.

But it's the young cameramen among the protesters who have taken on the toughest job — risking their lives to document the uprising and, now, the Arab League mission.

They are often the first to be targeted by the security police, says Jarrah, the activist. Basil al-Sayid, 24, was shot in the head on Dec. 22 and died Wednesday, the day the observers arrived in Homs.

"He was just about to film, and they were opening fire at the crowd that was protesting," says Jarrah. "And it was the moment that he pressed 'record' — that was the moment he was shot."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.