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Chemical Weapons Aside, Syria Faces Daily Grind


And while the news out of Syria focused on the use of chemical weapons and what, if anything, the U.S. should do about it, in Syria, the war continues daily.

NPR's Kelly McEvers has been covering the conflict. She's in Washington this week. She's been on this story for over two years. Kelly, we're so glad that you could be with us today.


LYDEN: One of the most striking developments this past week was the destruction of this ancient minaret in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Can you tell me what you know about that?

MCEVERS: Yes. Imagine this site, Jacki. This is an ancient mosque. It's almost - it's 1,000-year-old mosque in the city of Aleppo. This is a city in northern Syria. For a long time, this particular mosque, the Umayyad Mosque, has been on the front lines. It sits in the old city of Aleppo. That's kind of on the dividing line between the government side of the city and the rebel side of the city.

In fact, when we were there months ago, the rebels were fighting to get control of the old city. And what they told us was that the government had actually mined this mosque, had planted bombs in the mosque for the day when the rebels maybe were going to control it. And so what they say happened this week is that as the rebels did advance to try to take control of this mosque that the government blew it up. Of course, the government says the rebels blew it up. They actually say Islamist fighters blew it up.

So at this point, we don't know who did it. It seems like the rebel story is a little more feasible. But either way, honestly, the sad thing is that whoever's responsible, you know, this is a piece of Syria's rich heritage that is now lost.

LYDEN: Yeah. Beyond the horrendous loss of life, it is a tragedy to see these kinds of landmarks also under attack. And as we were just saying, the war grinds on and on. It seems it's sort of reached a stalemate. Do you sense that the stalemate might be changing?

MCEVERS: You know, one week, you see that the government has gained advantage; the next week, you see that the rebels have gained an advantage. And you don't really see that either side is winning. This week, we did see the government's troops for the first time really make some gains. One, east of Damascus in a rebel stronghold that was a key supply route for the rebels to get into the capital. And then another place along the Syrian-Lebanese border in a place called Qusair.

MCEVERS: The reason that place is important is because we were also seeing the involvement of fighters from the militant group Hezbollah. This is the militant group that's based next door in Lebanon. It's a Shiite militia backed by Iran. They've been involved at a pretty low level, but we've really seen more involvement, especially this week. We're getting reports of lots of funerals for Hezbollah fighters. That means that boys are going over to fight, and they're dying in this.

MCEVERS: And why is that important? Well, it's important because it means that the Syria conflict, as predicted, is regionalizing. It's spreading over the borders, and that's a very worrying sign.

LYDEN: Kelly, speaking of Syria's neighbors, there's reports this week that the U.S. and its allies might be actually training Syrian rebels in Jordan, which, of course, shares a very important border with Syria. What's going on?

MCEVERS: This is something we actually reported first back in the fall. And what we're seeing is that private contractors likely hired by the U.S., the U.K., some of its allies there in Jordan are vetting and training Syrian rebels, Syrian rebels who are seen as more moderate, who are not Islamists, who they can have a handle on, who they can get to know, and possibly at some point, provide with weapons.

You know, the Obama administration talks about how it wants to give nonlethal support to the rebel movement in Syria. And I think that's still true. But the sense is that at some point, maybe they'll be flipping the switch and saying it's time for you rebels who we've been giving these advanced weapon training and planning advice, to go into Syria. Keep in mind that this part of the border is just an hour's drive away from the capital Damascus. And everybody knows that the final battle for Syria will be in Damascus.

LYDEN: And, of course, the refugee crisis is also growing. Besides the thousands dead, over a million have fled their homes.

MCEVERS: Absolutely. One to two million refugees outside of Syria, millions more inside of Syria. Back in January, you had the international community coming together pledging $1.5 billion in aid. Up to this point, only half of that money has come through. You have the United Nations basically throwing up its hands and saying, we will simply have to cut the programs that are already stretched to provide these people with food and shelter. So the situation could not be more dire.

LYDEN: Thank you for giving us that report. NPR's Kelly McEvers. And, Kelly, you're going to be taking a turn here in the host chair next week. We're all looking forward to that.

MCEVERS: Thanks so much. Me too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.