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Syrian Army Gains Ground As Refugee Crisis Worsens


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. In Syria, the army of President Bashar al-Assad appears to be gaining the upper hand on the battlefield, as rebels wait for military assistance from the U.S. and other Western allies, assistance that has yet to arrive. Meanwhile, U.N. officials say the refugee crisis has now reached levels not seen since after the Rwanda genocide.

NPR's Kelly McEvers joins us from Beirut for more. Kelly, welcome.


WERTHEIMER: Could you tell us about the situation in Syria? How has the regime managed to begin regaining control?

MCEVERS: I think the real turning point was involvement of the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah. Now what we're seeing is Hezbollah fighting alongside the Syrian army to retake the final rebel strongholds in the Syrian city of Homs. There's a few rebel areas left but if they do lose the city it will be a major blow because Homs is considered a real heartland of the rebellion.

The question is, what will the regime ultimately regain control of. You know, right now, controls populous areas, like cities, while rebels control more territory in the north and east. So I think the regime is making the calculation that as long as it retains some of Syria, the important parts of Syria, that's enough.

WERTHEIMER: We've seen many reports about infighting within the rebel movement. What is happening to the rebels?

MCEVERS: What's happening is we're seeing these hard-line Islamist groups made up of foreign fighters coming into Syria in large numbers making a real push in these rebel-controlled areas in the north. Each group has a different name. They're by no means one monolithic group, and there's a lot of infighting over who's in charge.

But I think one of the most alarming things we've seen is that some of these hard-line fighters are engaged in fighting against some of the more moderate fighters on the rebel side. We saw two moderate leaders killed recently. And it's important to say it's not just about ideology. It's not just that the hard-liners want an Islamic state and the moderates want something more along the lines of the pluralistic state if they do topple Syria's president.

But it's also about turf, it's about booty, you know. Various countries are supporting these rebel groups. So, you know, I think that the bottom line here is that the war in Syria is not just spreading beyond its borders, but it's splintering within Syria. We're really seeing wars within the war.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that's what the U.S. is afraid of and why it has moved so slowly to arm the Syrian rebels?

MCEVERS: Absolutely. I mean, you know, as the White House, as the Obama administration looks to make good on its promise to arm and support the Syria rebels, you know, Congress is very reluctant. In the end, Congress did approve the administration's request to provide light arms to the Syrian rebels, but I think everyone in Washington is still very hesitant to provide the larger arms that can turn the tide on the battlefield.

You know, this week we saw British authorities sort of pull back from that. I think the main criticism, you know, is not just what exactly the U.S. is going to do, but a lot of countries are just wanting somebody to be the leader here. You know, the U.S. could be the leader, but it's not, and now you've just got every country in the region - Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia - vying to be that leader, and that's only sowing more chaos on the ground.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Kelly McEvers in Beirut. Kelly, thank you very much.

MCEVERS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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