LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Syrian president Bashar al Assad has finally declared that his country is in a state of war. That came in a speech to his cabinet yesterday. Over the past 24 hours, fighting has escalated. Rebels took on an elite unit of the Syrian army and attacked a pro-Assad television station. Also, neighboring Turkey toughened the rules of engagement for troops on the country's shared border after Syria shot down a Turkish jet. NPR's Deborah Amos joins us now from Beirut. Deb, could we start with the rhetoric from Assad? This is new, isn't it?
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: It is. To say this so clearly is a change in his narrative, and he called on the cabinet, and what he really means is the army, to crush the enemies. This is confirmation of a new and what seems to be a stepped up offensive against the rebels, and the civilian casualty rate is soaring. But the rebels have also delivered their own surprises. It's very likely that Assad could hear that fighting last night, because it was just about five miles from the presidential palace.
Rebels took on the elite Republican Guards in the neighborhood called Qudssaya, and civilians there said they had to spend the night in a bathroom because it's the safest room in their house. Now, the fighting is also close to this military compounds called Assad Villages. This is where military families live. You know, for so long Syrian state television reported that this was all fake news by Arab satellite channels, but Syrians in the capital, they could hear it last night.
WERTHEIMER: So how significant is this fighting?
AMOS: You know, it's not enough to bring down the regime, and that's according to military experts, although the Wall Street Journal reported that the Free Syrian Army has opened a lobbying office in Washington. What does seem clear is that this rebel group has been able to expand territory under its control. Yesterday the former head of a Syrian opposition group, Burhan Ghalioun, went to Syria and he traveled around in the northern province of Idlib, and he congratulated the fighters there, had pictures taken, and it was all uploaded on YouTube.
WERTHEIMER: Does that represent some kind of a change that he just didn't seem to feel he was in any danger, that he could go in and pose for pictures?
AMOS: It's sure a morale boost for Syrians, anti-government Syrians who live in Idlib, that they feel so comfortable that he could come in and walk around, take pictures, and go back to Turkey.
WERTHEIMER: Deb, what is this business with Turkey, Turkey taking a new stance on the border?
AMOS: Yes. That was a clear warning after Syria shot down a Turkish jet. Turkey brought its case to NATO, and with that backing the Turkish prime minister gave a televised speech to parliament. He said he instructed the military to hit back at Syria for any provocation, so what that means is this border is on a hair trigger, and it ups the tension considerably.
WERTHEIMER: Any new efforts outside Syria to end the fighting?
AMOS: At the moment no one knows how to stop this fighting. The international community is still divided. There are suggestions there may be a meeting this week in Geneva, but the sticking point so far is that in Washington the Obama administration is insisting that the Russians have to acknowledge that Bashar al Assad, the president of Syria, has to go, and the Russians are saying no.
WERTHEIMER: NPR's Deb Amos in Beirut. Thanks very much.
AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.