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Tug Of War In Syria Exposes Splintering Opposition


Since it began more than two years ago, the bloody civil war in Syria has cost the lives of more than 100,000 people. What was once a two-sided war with rebels fighting to depose President Bashar al-Assad has fractured and fractured again into a messy multipronged struggle for power.

This fragmentation has complicated the Obama administration's promise to send so-called nonlethal aid to the rebels. So far, the aid hasn't materialized, neither has the heavy weaponry rebels say they need to win.

NPR's Kelly McEvers has been following the story and joins us now with an update on the conflict. Hi, Kelly.


LYDEN: You know, at this point, Kelly, from your judgment you've covered a long time, does one side appear to be gaining ground?

MCEVERS: The Syrian Army is gaining ground. The Syrian regime and its backers, the Lebanese Shiite militia, Hezbollah, are definitely gaining ground. And it's not just about nonlethal aid. I mean, the Free Syrian Army - this is the rebel group that's fighting the Syrian government - they feel like they've been promised weapons as well. And they're waiting for those, especially in cities like the central city of Homs. They feel like they're surrounded.

And they have been getting weapons from Saudi Arabia. The United States helps vet who will get these weapons. And you have these rebels saying, look, you know us, you've trained us, you've vetted us. You know, go ahead and make good on your promise.

LYDEN: There's another bit of very bad news for the Free Syrian Army just a couple of days ago. And that's the news about this prominent rebel commander in the Free Syrian Army being assassinated by these al-Qaida linked militants. How does that complicate things?

MCEVERS: I mean, you're really seeing a splintering of the rebel movement on the ground. This assassination is just the latest in a string of fights between the more moderate fighters who are mostly Syrians and these Islamist groups. There are Iraqis. There are Libyans coming in and forming these, you know, jihadist-style organizations that are fighting for something along the lines of an Islamic state not to, you know, topple a regime and still a democratic government. You know, I just talked to a Syrian activist yesterday who said, you know, after this conflict, we're going to see another conflict between these two sides.

LYDEN: NPR Middle East correspondent Kelly McEvers speaking to us today from Cairo. Kelly, thank you very much.

MCEVERS: You're welcome.

LYDEN: As outside jihadi militant groups gain power in Syria, there are fears that the infighting among the rebel forces will become a breeding ground for extremist groups. Western diplomats are also concerned that spillover from the war into neighboring countries is further destabilizing an already volatile region.

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad of The Guardian newspaper has spent much of the past two years reporting from inside Syria. He's documented the splintering of the rebel movement. We caught up with him by Skype from Istanbul.

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: At this moment, you have, like, the big conflict between the rebels and the government, but then you have a series of many conflicts - and many conflicts most of the times about resources, about looting, about weapons, religion, of course. I mean, I go to a town and they would have, like, 12, 15 battalions. Six months later, they would have 70 battalions. And I think a lot of what we see in Syria now is because of that fragmentation.

LYDEN: Let's get to Al-Nusra, one of the groups that you've recently reported on. They're fascinating. Tell us more about who they are and where they're getting their recruits.

ABDUL-AHAD: Well, Al-Nusra started back in late 2011, early 2012. Many of them went to find the Americans in Iraq. From the beginning, they distinguished themselves as being jihadists, and they kind of shunned the Free Syrian Army as being secular. The biggest problem started emerging with the fight of Aleppo because, suddenly, the rebels start taking over factories, warehouses, wheat silos. Then they moved into the east of Syria, and then you had gas refineries, oil refineries. Then there - then came the issue of money.

LYDEN: Let me ask you about how the Al-Nusra group took over - how do the people receive them?

ABDUL-AHAD: Many of the locals I've talked to, they complain how the Nusra have become this economical empire. They have resources, they have cars, they control the fields, they control the electricity, they control everything. And I think that's a lesson that Nusra have learned from Afghanistan, from Somalia and from Iraq. They want resources, and they want money. So you see people complaining. I mean, one of the guys was telling me, you know, if the Nusra can take a cut from the air we breathe, they would have done so.

LYDEN: Haven't they also been able to provide things like free electricity and basic social services and hospital services and all kinds of things for people that people really want?

ABDUL-AHAD: They have managed to provide services to the people who they control, basically. The silos that they control, the wheat silos, they sell a lot of that wheat to merchants in Turkey. But they also use some of that wheat to provide free or almost free bread to the people in the towns they control. So that's another factor. And the Jihadists have the reputation of being more honest than others, and that's what's on their side.

LYDEN: Would you say they have ambitions of grandeur or talking about a caliphate, one of the things that you reported?

ABDUL-AHAD: I mean, you know, you talk to any two Jihadists sitting in a mountain top, they want to establish a khilafah. So that's kind of - that's the normal thing. But the difference is they have a plan. I mean, I've seen Jihadists in Somalia. I've seen them in Afghanistan. I've seen them in Iraq. I've seen them in, you know, in many different places. The difference here is they are taking resources.

LYDEN: That's Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. He's a correspondent for The Guardian newspaper, and he spent much of the past two years reporting on the civil war in Syria. Ghaith, thank you so very much.

ABDUL-AHAD: Thank you.

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