Syria Could Become A Failed State If Assad Falls

Melissa Block talks to Jeremy Bowen, Middle East editor of the BBC, who is reporting from Damascus about the latest developments in Syria.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

What is the endgame to the bloody crisis in Syria? That question is ringing from Washington to Dublin to Damascus today. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the U.S. is very concerned the Assad regime might resort to chemical weapons. He warned of serious consequences if that were to happen.

CORNISH: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met in Dublin today with Russia's foreign minister and the United Nations special representative on the Syrian crisis. The U.N.'s Lakhdar Brahimi said they're seeking creative ways to bring the Syrian problem under control. And in Syria itself, in the capital city, there are signs that pressure on the Assad regime is increasing.

BLOCK: The BBC's Jeremy Bowen is in Damascus. He arrived yesterday, and he joins me now. Jeremy, you were last there in the capital just under a year ago. How has the city changed? What is Damascus like now?

JEREMY BOWEN: It's deteriorated. I can see the stress that the people are under, that soldiers are under, that civilians are under. You can see it in their faces. People used to go out and about on a Thursday night. Damascus was an extremely sociable city. It's now deserted. People go home. People go home when it gets dark because they're scared of what might happen.

BLOCK: We've been hearing about an escalation in fighting in the suburbs ringing the capital. How audible, how visible is that where you are?

BOWEN: Throughout the day, there were audible explosions - a rocket fire, an artillery going out from Damascus into the suburbs and into the countryside around the satellite towns of the capital city. So those areas are being pounded. They're very, very badly damaged.

What I would say is that the quite widespread suggestions in the press abroad, away from Syria, that Damascus was about to fall to the rebels, I think, are exaggerated. And as you go around the center of the city, you see the regime basically still in charge here and with reserves of force.

BLOCK: Have you been able to talk to people in the capital about their fears or what they see happening in the near future?

BOWEN: Well, I've been to a couple of different places, yeah, and I spoke to loyalists, Alawites, people from the religious sect that President Assad is a part of. They were worried about what's going on. Of course they are because those people - poor Alawites, not always all that well-educated - provide a lot of the men who actually carry guns and pull triggers for the regime.

And there is, I think, some irritation with the Alawite leadership. You - there's one phrase that you hear sometimes from them, which is they live in palaces, and we go to graves. The death toll, the casualty rate, is something which is hurting them.

BLOCK: Hmm. Jeremy, you met today with the deputy to the U.N. peace envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi. What did you take away from that meeting?

BOWEN: Well, yeah, I spoke to Mokhtar Lamani, who is his number two. Well, I think the extreme delicacy of the situation, the fragmentation of the country, the fragmentation of the political and military opposition to the regime and also the point that he made very forcibly was that if there's no political deal, then the alternative for Syria is to become a failed state, and not just a failed state like Somalia, which essentially kept the neighbors protected because the problems were all inside Somalia, because Syria has so many connections to its neighbors. That failure and the warlordism and so on that would emerge would spread. So you're talking about a very, very serious crisis here in a very fragile part of the world.

BLOCK: The BBC's Jeremy Bowen is in Damascus. Jeremy, thanks very much.

BOWEN: Thank you.

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