Fighting In Syria On The Precipice Of Civil War

A week of devastating street fighting has left parts of Syria's capital city Damascus in ruins. The UN estimated that over 18,000 Syrians have fled the fighting as the country descends into bona fide civil war. Weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz checks in with NPR foreign correspondent Peter Kenyon, who is stationed in Beirut.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

We'll have another update on the latest from Aurora, Colorado, in a few moments. But first to some other news and to Syria where the fighting has spread to the northern city of Aleppo. Aleppo has been spared much of the violence since the uprising began 16 months ago. NPR's Peter Kenyon is following developments in Syria from neighboring Lebanon, and he joins me now. And, Peter, what can you tell us about the fighting in Aleppo?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, until recently, Guy, Aleppo's demonstrations were pretty much confined to the university. But then in recent months, rebel fighters have gradually taken control of rural areas, villages outside the city. And a few days ago, clashes started in the Saladin suburb. And then overnight, we're told a group of fighters slipped into Aleppo itself and brought the fight to this industrial hub.

Families immediately began to scramble for safety, mostly looking within Syria for safer neighborhoods. Just like the capital, this - Aleppo is a city that the regime is determined to save. It was a rare economic bright spot, kind of a symbol of Syria's now moribund efforts to re-engage with the world. So, really, on a symbolic level, getting Aleppo into the fight is a victory for the rebels.

And that comes on the heels of this bomb attack Wednesday that penetrated the Assad family's inner circle, killing four security advisers. Now, on the other hand, to be realistic, no one is predicting that these rebel fighters are going to hold or take the whole city of Aleppo. They simply don't have the numbers or the weapons to do that.

RAZ: And reports of fighting elsewhere in Syria today, right?

KENYON: Yes. It's still going on. The stronghold of anti-Assad feeling for generations has been the central Homs and Hama area. Today, the Homs suburb of Rastan has been hit with ferocious shelling and gunfire, according to activists. The most dramatic turn of events this week was the rebels bringing the fight to the Assad stronghold of Damascus, and the regime's backlash is continuing. It was a quieter morning in Damascus, but activists and residents now say shelling has hit at least three neighborhoods in the capital.

There's also reports of large numbers of tanks and armored vehicles coming up from the south. In other cities in the past, that has meant home raids and neighborhood raids by military and these paramilitary groups called the Shabiha, which have been very deadly.

RAZ: Peter, earlier in the week, we saw this very large exodus of civilian refugees. Is that still happening?

KENYON: Well, reports we're hearing today are of smaller numbers of people crossing. The last couple of days before that, some 20,000 crossed over here into Lebanon alone, mostly coming from the capital. On the other hand, although rebel fighters claim to control the Syrian side of all the crossings into Iraq now, Iraqi officials say those crossings will remain closed, and Iraq is not planning to build any refugee camps on their side of the borders.

What we are hearing now inside Syria and outside are urgent calls for help with internally displaced people. U.N. officials say, you know, for every refugee crossing a border to another country, there are many, many more trying to find shelter inside Syria. And trying to help those people is much harder given the security situation.

RAZ: Peter, this crisis has not played out according to anyone's predictions so far. What are you hearing from anti-Assad activists about where the uprising goes from here?

KENYON: Well, the Syrians I'm speaking with caution that this crisis could be simply turning into another long hard phase of bloodshed. The regime has been hit just where it seemed the strongest. Its flaunted security and intelligence apparatus was penetrated. And there is some speculation that the reaction by this traditionally paranoid regime that survives on loyalty and a small clique of leaders may be to try and find the person or people who've betrayed the regime, and that could increase the paranoia in Damascus that could give some advantage to the rebels.

But basically, that's still speculation, and the military advantage is very heavily weighted on the regime side. International diplomacy remains paralyzed. There are another 30 days now for the U.N. observer mission, but they haven't been able to do much. So barring a change of heart in the Assad family, it's likely to continue to rely on the military and security response, and that does not bode well for ordinary Syrians.

RAZ: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon reporting on the situation in Syria from neighboring Lebanon. Peter, thanks so much.

KENYON: You're welcome, Guy.

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