Deborah Amos

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In Iran, hardline critics are waging a campaign against President Hassan Rouhani to limit his campaign pledge of opening Iran to more social and cultural freedoms.

The "culture wars" are as old as the Islamic revolution that swept conservative clerics to power more than three decades ago. The latest chapter comes as Rouhani is negotiating a nuclear deal with six world powers. He has the backing of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to continue the nuclear discussions, but cultural hardliners are stepping up the domestic pressure.

The Syrian civil war has been a major headache for President Obama. Critics at home and abroad, like Saudi Arabia, where the president was on Friday, have urged the U.S. to do more.

But the U.S. isn't the only country that's faced difficult choices over Syria. Iran and Syria have been close allies for decades. And in Iran, discussions about Syria are surprisingly frank, complex and demonstrate growing divisions over how to handle a costly war that has no end in sight.

On a sunny afternoon in the dusty, overcrowded Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, a group of Syrian girls recites a familiar pledge and hope to change their future. The youngsters promise to serve God and country, to help people at all times and live by the laws of the Girl Scouts.

The troop was organized by Hanna Vazquez, a volunteer with Mercy Corps, a U.S.-based humanitarian group.

"We are going to do the Girl Scout music badge," she says, as the girls gather around.

For months, a military stalemate has defined the war in Syria. Now, a new strategy is emerging as Western allies and Gulf states step up support for rebels in southern Syria.

Along Jordan's northern border, Syrian rebels say they are unifying their fractious ranks, urged to unite by Western and Arab intelligence operatives who work in a covert command center in Jordan's capital.

The 27-year-old Syrian, who once smuggled arms for Syrian rebels, is now waiting in Istanbul for a human smuggler to get him to Europe. He says his name is Mohammed. He does not offer a second name. He will go by air, he says, the safest route. He has paid a smuggler more than $8,000, and he's sure he will get to Austria.

In the past week, he connected seven friends with smugglers.

"I know that most of them made it," he says, with a tight smile. He is traveling light. Everything he owns is in a backpack.

"I am leaving Syria under a lot of pressure," he explains.

The World Health Organization has declared a polio emergency in Syria.

After being free of the crippling disease for more than a decade, Syria recorded 10 confirmed cases of polio in October. Now the outbreak has grown to 17 confirmed cases, the WHO said last week. And the virus has spread to four cities, including a war-torn suburb near the capital of Damascus.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Activists in Saudi Arabia tried once, they tried again and now they're making a third challenge to the kingdom's long-standing ban on female drivers.

Some women have recently made short drives, posting videos on social media sites, and many more are planning to get behind the wheel on Saturday.

Alexandra Chen, a specialist in childhood trauma, is on her way from the Lebanese capital, Beirut, to the southern town of Nabatiyeh, where she's running a workshop for teachers, child psychologists and sports coaches who are dealing with the Syrian children scarred by war in their homeland.

"All of the children have experienced trauma to varying degree," explains Chen, who works for Mercy Corps and is training a dozen new hires for her aid group.

Mark Ward is the U.S. State Department's senior adviser on assistance to Syria, and when he heard the Syrian border town of Azaz was overrun by an offshoot of al-Qaida in September, he knew it was time to get creative again.

"You always have to have a plan B in this kind of work," he says.

Ward is based in Turkey. His job is to oversee a growing and unusual U.S. humanitarian assistance program in rebel-held areas in seven provinces across northern Syria.

A satellite cellphone rings for rebel commander Bashar al-Zawi, at home with his family in the Jordanian city of Irbid. It's a rare domestic break for this wealthy businessman turned rebel commander. But he is anxious to get back to his battalion of 5,000 fighters in southern Syria.

They are taking part in a rebel offensive that is squeezing the Syrian army around the city of Dera'a. Military analysts say the fight is one of the most strategically important battles in Syria's civil war, because Dera'a, close to Damascus, is President Bashar Assad's stronghold in the southwest.

In chaotic situations, certain people rise to the top, and that is certainly the case for Mohammed al-Hariri, a former air conditioning repairman who commands enormous deference on the windblown streets of Zaatari refugee camp.

The battle for the city of Dera'a in southern Syria has become a test of an American pledge to give military support to rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad. After a string of defeats, the rebels have scored rare victories around Dera'a.

But in interviews,rebel commanders passing through neighboring Jordan say those gains could be lost without a dependable arms pipeline and promised U.S. support.

Yasser Aboud, a thin, intense former colonel in the Syrian army, commands the joint operations center for southern Syria.

Pages