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Syria's Neighbors Fear That Fighting Could Spread

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Syria's Neighbors Fear That Fighting Could Spread

Middle East

Syria's Neighbors Fear That Fighting Could Spread

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To Syria now, where an ongoing uprising has turned into an armed conflict, and many in the region worry the violence will spread. Syria is at the heart of the Middle East. It's bordered by Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon, where clashes are up to this past weekend over the Syrian conflict and where NPR's Kelly McEvers begins her report.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: The clashes started on Friday here in the Lebanese city of Tripoli. Sunnis in this neighborhood began protesting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They hung a huge banner on the side of a mosque.

It's a picture of Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria. He's wearing his sort of military uniform, fatigues and sunglasses. There's a big red X across his face, and then pictures of funerals.

Trouble is that banner was in clear view of the next neighborhood over. That neighborhood is Alawite, the same sect as Assad. People there support the Syrian president. As the protest swelled, the shots started flying. Men from the two neighborhoods fired on each other with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Three people were killed.

I mean, the number of bullet holes - it'd be impossible to exaggerate how many bullet holes. And some of these older streets with the older Lebanese balconies, I mean, they're just - they look like they're falling down because they've been shot so many times.

The thing is these bullet holes have been around for a long time, in some cases, for years. That's because tensions between these two neighborhoods have existed for generations. And disputes here are usually played out with bullets. But still, this most recent flare-up has people here in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region concerned that Syria's conflict could easily spread. After all, Lebanon had its own civil war from 1975 to 1990. The reason for the fear is that the conflict in Syria is exposing ethnic and sectarian divides, like the ones in Iraq that were held together by an oppressive regime.

Syria is ruled by Alawites, but the majority are Sunnis. The country also has substantial Kurdish and Christian populations. Yezid Sayigh is with the Carnegie Middle East Center. He says that as the Syrian regime's hold on the country erodes and the opposition gains strength, these divides will only sharpen.

YEZID SAYIGH: I think that the militarization of the opposition in Syria will necessarily bring in the regional geopolitical conflict and rivalries in ways that will both destabilize neighbors and actually make the Syrian conflict far worse and far harder to resolve.

MCEVERS: To imagine all the scenarios of a regional conflagration can make your head spin. For one, Sayigh says, the Syrian regime could encourage the Kurds of Syria to help Kurdish militants in Turkey. Or, he says the Syrian opposition might embolden Sunnis in Iraq to try and break off into their own independent region. And then there's the al-Qaida factor.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: In recent days, the head of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released this video, calling on all Muslims to support the Syrian uprising. This, of course, feeds directly into the Syrian regime's narrative that the uprising is not a grassroots movement but rather a grand act of terrorism, sponsored by America and Israel. Trouble is, the regime's story might be coming true. Two car bombs recently killed 28 people in the Syrian city of Aleppo. And Iraqis from notorious militant enclaves are pledging support and guns. Andrew Tabler is with the Washington Institute for Near East policy. He says it's still too soon to say that al-Qaida has entered the Syrian fray.

ANDREW TABLER: The Syrian government permitted these groups and their affiliates to be in Syria for years, as long as they transited Syria and they went to places like Iraq or Lebanon to fight against the regime's enemies. Now that technology, the technology of a car bomb, at bare minimum, is coming back to bite them. Is it actually al-Qaida? We're not exactly sure. But the technology to do this, the know-how and the people to do it have been in Syria at the invitation of the Assad regime for almost a decade. So it's no surprise, I think, that people wanting to fight back would take matters into their own hands in such a way.

MCEVERS: So far there's been no al-Qaida claim of responsibility for the Aleppo attack or for similar earlier attacks in Syria's capital, Damascus. Still, most analysts agree that the longer this conflict drags on, the more likely it is that many of these scenarios could play out. Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

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