Syrian Conflict Marches Into Fourth Year

The Syrian uprising started three years ago this week with protests and eventually a military crackdown that led to all-out civil war. More than 130,000 people have died.

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As the war in Syria enters its fourth year, Syrian rebels have experienced a major loss. A town along the Syrian -Lebanese border, vital to the rebels as a supply route, has been overrun by government forces backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters. The seizure of the town of Yabroud gives the Syrian regime broader control over the western part of the country.

NPR's Deborah Amos has been following the action from Beirut. Good Morning.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Deb, this gives the government control over an area stretching from Damascus, the capital, all the way up to Aleppo in the north. So, in a war that has been something of a stalemate for months, does this change the balance of forces?

AMOS: The regime does have the momentum. You can see that in Yabroud. You can also see it in the local ceasefires, where the regime has used this tactic of surrender or starve. Civilians have pushed local rebels to make deals. Syrians have stopped calling for freedom. They're now only calling for food.

But Yabroud is somewhat interesting, because it's a turning point. The recent history was a symbol of the revolution, and how it changed and how it failed. Yabroud slipped out of government control early in the revolt. And the town is a mixed population, Christians and Muslims. They ran their own affairs, until late last year, when more militant rebels moved in. Yabroud was the place that 13 Christian nuns were held by Islamists until last week.

The Syrian government says Yabroud was a center for car bombs that killed dozens of people in Lebanon over the past few months.

MONTAGNE: And what does this capture by the Syrian government mean for Lebanon?

AMOS: Well, some of the fighters have been pushed into Lebanon. And last night, there was a report of a suicide car bomb that killed four people in the Baqa'a Valley, which is near the border, and at least two were reportedly Hezbollah members.

In Damascus, the fall of Yabroud coincides with an official announcement that there will be a presidential election this summer. President Bashar al-Assad is likely to run again for a third term. The minister of information told this to The Wall Street Journal. The vote will take place in areas controlled by the government, and that rules out a vote for anyone in a rebel area or the millions of refugees who are outside the country.

MONTAGNE: So, in what way does that bode badly for the prospects of peace in this war?

AMOS: Well, the U.N. envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, was quoted as saying an election ends the prospect for a diplomatic end to the conflict. These elections will be open to candidates other than President Assad. But there's a new election law, and that rules out participation by any of the political opposition. Anyone who runs has to have lived in Syria for 10 years.

And after the Geneva talks earlier this year, the regime declared that all those opposition negotiators, they are terrorists, and they confiscated any of their holdings in Syria.

MONTAGNE: So this means an election that will find Assad himself still in power.

AMOS: It is likely that he will get 97 percent of the vote, as he has in the last two elections.

MONTAGNE: So, you've been reporting on the Syrian conflict for three years, Deb. How did it get so intractable? There seems no end in sight to the fighting and no way out.

AMOS: In early spring of 2011, I saw an uprising that it did begin as a peaceful protest against a brutal regime. It was local. It was supported by some of the business community. But the regime really had time to prepare. There was a failed Green Movement in Iran. Then there was Tunisia, Egypt, Libya - Syria had almost same problems, and there was this wave sweeping the region.

But Syria was different in some ways. It sits on all the fault lines of the Middle East. It's a sectarian stew. There are Alawites, Christians, Druze, Kurds, Sunnis. And what's happened now is they've broken into some existential fight for survival. Regional powers stepped in. The Gulf States funded radical fighters. Iran and Hezbollah stepped in to help the regime. Iraqi militants came. For the Sunnis, it was al-Qaida, and the Iraqi Shia militias have crossed the border, too.

Then there's the international level. The U.S. and the Russians, they're at odds over how to end this war. So the problem is Syria isn't just one war. It's a lot of wars, all in one. And no one is fighting for Syria anymore. So the Syria that I knew in 2011, that Syria is gone.

MONTAGNE: Deborah Amos, speaking to us from Beirut. Thanks very much.

AMOS: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: This afternoon on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, Deb reports on Syrian kids now facing the prospect of spending their entire childhood as refugees.

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