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Violence From Syria Spills Into Lebanon's Capital Beirut


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene. Steve Inskeep is on assignment in Syria.

And the conflict in that country took a potentially dangerous turn over the weekend, as violence spilled over into the capital of neighboring Lebanon. Yesterday, two rockets struck a Beirut neighborhood that's controlled by the militant group Hezbollah. This followed a speech on Saturday by Hezbollah's leade,r in which he basically admitted that his men are fighting in Syria, to support the country's president, President Bashar Al-Assad.

NPR's Kelly McEvers is in Beirut and joins us now. And, Kelly, tell us more about the speech from Hezbollah's leader, and what's new here?

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Well, for a long time we've known that Hezbollah backs the regime in Syria. They've been long allies with the President Assad. And, of course, with Iran they sort of formed this axis of resistance here in the region. And we've also known for it while that a small number Hezbollah fighters and advisers have been going into the Syrian conflict, and fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime.

What's new here is, you know, you basically have Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, saying that, you know, we've entered a quote-unquote, "new phase" - we are actively involved in Syria. And you have an organization that was founded on the premise, you know, in the beginning, of being the resistance to Israel, now admitting that it's fighting other Arabs here in the region. This is a major switch for Hezbollah.

And the reasoning that Nasrallah used is that, you know, these Arabs, these predominantly Sunni rebels - who are working to bring down the Syrian regime - are part of some grand conspiracy who are aligned with Israel and the United States.

GREENE: And, Kelly, you mentioned Israel there. We should say that a lot of people remember the name Hezbollah from recently Israel, we believe targeting parts of Syria to stop weapons from getting into the hands of the Hezbollah militant group, right?

MCEVERS: Right, this is a big concern for Israel. They call it Game Changing Weapons. But I think, you know, it still doesn't mean that Israel is actively involved in the Syrian conflict, as Hezbollah would like its own supporters to believe.

GREENE: Well, how exactly is Hezbollah appear to be involved in Syria right now? What are they doing?

MCEVERS: Nasrallah didn't spell out all the details. I mean he's still been pretty vague about it. But what we know is that Hezbollah militants are now definitely directly fighting in the Syrian town of Qusair. This is a big battle that's been going on for more than a week now. We're seeing funerals for Hezbollah fighters back here in Lebanon, almost every day. Monitoring groups are saying that dozens of them have died fighting in Qusair.

This is a town, it straddles the Syrian/Lebanese border and it's tactically very important. Why? Because for both sides it's a major transit hub for men and weapons going, you know, out of Lebanon and into Syria. So it would be key for either one of them to hold it. For months, it was held by Syrian rebels. Now the Syrian army wants to take it back.

Over the weekend, we spoke to civilians fleeing from Qusair. They said, you know, we could stand it artillery strikes, we could stand the airstrikes over the last several months, but once that ground offensive came, once Hezbollah came to town, we knew we had to flee.

GREENE: OK. And then, Kelly, tell us what we know as of now about this rocket attack yesterday on this Hezbollah-controlled part of Beirut?

MCEVERS: It was two rockets fired at the southern part of Beirut. This is the part that Hezbollah controls. One hit a car showroom, another hit an apartment building, four people were injured. Lebanese officials said they later found the rocket launchers in the mountains, kind of southeast of the city. But so far, no one has claimed responsibility for the attack.

I mean a lot of analysts here say that the rockets were a message to Hezbollah, right? Like, don't get too involved there might be consequences. And I think it's important to understand that, you know, there have been street battles between Sunnis and Shiites here in Lebanon, especially as the Syrian conflict has flared up. But, you know, the use of heavy weaponry like this, this is pretty rare.

GREENE: And does this mean that a lot of people who feared that this conflict would spill over into Lebanon, that their fears are coming true?

MCEVERS: You know, one thing Nasrallah said in his speech was that, you know, his fighters are in Syria to prevent sectarian violence from spreading into Lebanon. He basically, sort of, called on people, you know, whatever differences you have, go sort them out inside Syria.

I think what a lot of people fear is that Hezbollah's involvement will actually have the opposite effect, right? That it will stoke this sort of sectarian anger. I mean this is really the big boogeyman in the region, is that the Syrian conflict that's, you know, largely Sunni rebels versus an Alawite-Shiite aligned government, will stoke some larger sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites across the whole region.

I mean you have a lot of players saying they don't want that to happen, especially here in fragile Lebanon. But I think there's a sense that it's happening anyway.

GREENE: All right, Kelly, thank you for that update, a conflict we'll obviously continue to follow.

That's NPR's Kelly McEvers in Beirut. Thanks, Kelly.

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

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.