Stream Of Refugees Leave Syria With Heavy Violence

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Opposition activists in Syria report that there's been another day of heavy shelling in a number of cities, as rebel fighters continue their guerrilla war to topple President Bashar Assad. Host Scott Simon talks with NPR's Peter Kenyon in Beirut, which has seen a huge increase in refugees in recent days.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Opposition activists in Syria report there's been another day of heavy shelling in a number of cities, as rebel fighters continue their guerrilla war to topple President Bashar al-Assad. Residents are reportedly fleeing the northern city of Aleppo, which had been calm. And the Syrian military has intensified their assault against Homs, the central stronghold of the opposition.

NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us from neighboring Beirut, which has seen a huge increase in refugees, in recent days. Peter, thanks for being with us.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: And reportedly, these 20,000 Syrians have left Damascus to come there, into Lebanon. What can you tell us about this flow of civilians?

KENYON: Well, it was a huge spike. The numbers yesterday seemed to have slowed somewhat, but the two previous days were just massive. And they are still coming into Lebanon; also heading to Turkey, Jordan and Iraq - people from other cities. This is a flight from the capital, however. Now, I've talked with some of the families, Many of the ones coming across into Lebanon are pretty well-to-do folks, who got out while they could. They were worried that the fighting would spread to their neighborhood in Damascus.

A few of them seemed not all that concerned, thinking they'll return home soon. Others, however, were quite perplexed and uncertain. Now, you have to remember, this happened very quickly. A bomb blast Wednesday killed four members of Bashar al-Assad's inner circle. All at once, a quiet, normal Damascus just erupted in violence as the regime began to take revenge. So many of these families fled very quickly, with barely any belongings. They don't know when it's going to be safe to return

And one other layer of complexity - the Sunni families among them are especially nervous because they're worried about the Shiite Hezbollah militia here in Lebanon, which is a big supporter of the regime. They're worried about reprisals - although we have to say, there's been no evidence of that yet.

SIMON: Are some of the Syrians with whom you've been able to speak, echoing a view that seems to be going around western capitals; that there's some kind of turning point that's been reached in this uprising?

KENYON: Well, that's actually pretty interesting. What's impressed me so far, is how little of that I'm hearing. Even among the Syrians I've spoken with, the committed ones who have an interest in giving an image of an uprising with gathering momentum all the time, there's a much more cautious view. Probably because they're living amid the clashes every day, they can see - all the time - how lopsided this fight is.

There have been a number of defections from the Syrian army. There's real uncertainty about the morale in the rank and file. But the pro-regime military and security forces are still much bigger, much better armed, better trained for this fight than the Free Syrian Army. Rebel fighters have made some strides. They're communicating better; their organization seems to be better; they've got more weapons. But it's still, very much, a guerrilla war.

They can strike like they did in Midan and central Damascus yesterday, and then they get driven out again. So it really could go either way. It's possible the Syrian regular army will continue to erode, crumble from within; but the Syrians I'm speaking with aren't ready to bet on that anytime soon, which may be why so many of them are fleeing.

SIMON: Peter, can you tell where the heaviest fighting seems to be concentrated now?

KENYON: We are getting reports today. The big news of the week, of course, was the fight coming to the capital, Damascus. And certain neighborhoods are still getting shelled - Kabun, Jabar, Mezzeh and others. But the bigger picture is that the main fighting is continuing in the same spots we've been reporting on for over a year - Daraa, in the south, where the protest began; Homs and Rastan - especially today - in the central part of the country, where anti-Assad feeling has been strong for generations; and then Idlib Province, in the north. And now we have to include the northwest, which is largely Kurdish. Yesterday and today, we're hearing of very heavy fighting and shelling in the northern industrial hub of Aleppo. Now that had been quiet, just like Damascus. But now, there's heavy shelling, and reports of many residents trying to flee for their safety. And this is happening at the same time that very near to there, pro-regime forces are fighting the rebels for control of the main border crossing with Turkey.

SIMON: Quickly, Peter, the U.N. mission - a lot of people forget - is still on the ground; been given another 30 days. Any effect on the ground?

KENYON: Not that any Syrians I've spoken with, can see. I mean, they're there to monitor implementation of a peace plan that neither side seems interested in implementing. They're not getting too close to the violence, so Syrians are sort of wondering what they're still doing there.

SIMON: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Lebanon. Thanks very much.

KENYON: You're welcome, Scott.

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