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Friday, October 4, 2013

The Latest From Syria

A convoy of inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons prepares cross into Syria at the Lebanese border crossing point of Masnaa, eastern Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013. (Bilal Hussein/AP)

A convoy of inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons prepares cross into Syria at the Lebanese border crossing point of Masnaa, eastern Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013. (Bilal Hussein/AP)

Before the government partially shut down on Tuesday, all eyes were on Syria.

A team of chemical weapons experts has been working in the country to dismantle Syria’s chemical arsenal.

Meanwhile, the ground fighting continues as fissures within the opposition widen.

NPR’s Deborah Amos has been reporting from the region and joins Here & Now for an update from Syria.





Remember Syria? Before the Washington shutdown, all eyes were on the country. Let's bring our gaze back. A team of chemical weapons experts has been working in Syria to dismantle its chemical weapons arsenal. NPR's Deborah Amos is in Beirut. Deb, welcome back to HERE AND NOW.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Thank you. Nice to be here.

YOUNG: And start with these weapons experts. How are we gauging their progress?

AMOS: Well, they said yesterday and released a statement that they had made progress. They met with Syrian officials. But so far, they haven't left the capital. So the hard part is coming. They have to verify the list of sites and the size of the arsenal. This is information that they have from the Syrian government.

They have to make sure there is nothing that's kept in hiding or has been moved. They have to also ensure the safety of the inspectors - there's 19 of them - and their staff before they head out to the sites. And they have to do all this while there's a war raging in the country. So the challenges are vast.

YOUNG: Well - and just what is the sense in the region? There was this huge amount of attention paid to it, the tense talks - Russia, Iran, President Obama - around the U.N. meeting. And then all of that seemed to move off center stage. Is there a sense in the region of resentment about that? Or are they not paying attention to that? What's your sense where you are?

AMOS: The chemical weapons are not what they're focused on. What they all say is we've had a hundred and we're not up to 115,000 dead in the country. Only 1 percent of those people were killed by chemical weapons.

YOUNG: Well - and as you say people in the region are more concerned in the absolute - in the moment fighting that's going on. What's the status of the ground fighting there, not just Assad's forces and insurgents but insurgents fighting Assad?

AMOS: There has been no let up in the fighting around the country, but not much has changed. There is still a stalemate. No side has been able to deal a knockout blow to the other. And at the same time, we are seeing the rebels fracturing among themselves. What we had in the last two weeks are some - a dozen of the most powerful rebel brigades in the country.

They have separated themselves from the political opposition in Istanbul. Now this is a group that's supported by the United States, recognized by a hundred countries. So this is an important fracture.

YOUNG: Well, Deb, last time we spoke, you even told us about the original rebels, if you will, those who were Syrians who were standing up against what they thought was the oppression of the minority government, and you said that some of them were saying the whole effort had been a huge mistake because so many foreign fighters and Islamists had entered the fray.

AMOS: There are radicals who have come to the country. They got support from private funders. The West did not support the more moderate rebels. And so what we have on our hands is groups who are well-armed, well-funded, especially in the north, who are radicalized, who are calling for an Islamic state in Syria.

This is so against the basic fundamental beliefs of most Syrians in the country. And that, I think, is why it is so disturbing to people who risk their lives for something bigger than themselves in the early days of this revolt and now are revolted by what they see that has happened to their country, 115,000 dead, many cities completely destroyed. So you can see why, for them, chemical weapons is a bit of a sideshow.

YOUNG: Well - and why so many are leaving, over two million Syrian refugees spread to neighboring countries, more than four million displaced. Bring us up to date on the humanitarian crisis.

AMOS: The Lebanese government estimates that 50 percent of Lebanon's municipalities now have double the number of Syrians in them than Lebanese. You know, the official number here is about a million Syrian refugees in the country. This is a country of four million. But it appears now that half of Lebanon's population is Syrian.

YOUNG: That's amazing. Twice as many Syrians as Lebanese in most cities in Lebanon?

AMOS: In 50 percent of the Lebanese municipalities. This government has been overwhelmed by the influx. And they have appealed to the international community. They say they need $1 billion. They've only gotten millions. This is the first year that you have more Syrians in Lebanese schools than Lebanese. And it is hard to imagine how this country can manage that number of people.

YOUNG: That's quite amazing. And how does it work in that Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon, is fighting on the side of Assad? But I'm presuming that many of the Syrians who have fled to Lebanon are fleeing Assad. How does that work?

AMOS: That's exactly right. And there are reports today that Hezbollah is bringing some of its fighters home because here is the conundrum for Hezbollah: The more they fight in Syria, the more Syrian refugees come to Lebanon. They have become incredibly unpopular in half of Lebanon. Even around the region, there are people who supported Hezbollah's ideas of challenging Israel. But they are now fighting inside Syria. This is not their mandate.

And so you find that they are losing support across the region, and they know that. That may be why they have brought some of their fighters home. But it doesn't stop the flow of refugees. It has not stopped the fight inside Syria. And so Lebanon continues to be overwhelmed.

YOUNG: What does that mean, though, Deb Amos? If Hezbollah is pulling back some of its fighters from Syria, noting that it's causing problems at home, including a flood of Syrian refugees coming to Lebanon, what does that mean for the Assad government?

AMOS: Well, it hasn't certainly escaped Hezbollah's attention that there have been car bomb attacks in Hezbollah-dominated neighborhoods. There was a gunfight in a town in eastern Lebanon over the weekend. They are paying a price both inside the country and regionally for their role inside Syria. What it means for Assad is unclear. He does have backing from the Iranians. Hezbollah did not bring all of its fighters out.

But what you notice, and I'll go back to this point about stalemate, that the Assad regime has been unable to take back big swaths of territory in the north also in the south. They did move the dial a bit when Hezbollah came in. So it's unclear now what will happen if they are bringing some of their fighters out of the battlefield.

YOUNG: And as you're saying, it's not as if they went in and wrapped this thing up. It's still ongoing.

AMOS: Indeed.

YOUNG: NPR's Deborah Amos from Beirut. Thanks so much as always.

AMOS: Thank you.

YOUNG: And we'd love your thoughts on Syria - so off the radar this week - at You can always also send us a message on Twitter, @hereandnow, @hereandnowrobin, @jeremyhobson. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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