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Fighting Continues To Scar Syrian Cities



This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The last U.N. military observers are pulling out of Syria today. Their mission has been made near impossible by the heavy fighting gripping the country.

A former Algerian foreign minister is taking over as U.N. envoy on Syria, but he's not optimistic about a quick end to the fighting. And neighboring Lebanon remains on edge, after a spate of kidnappings this week related to the Syrian conflict. NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us from Beirut.

Anthony, thanks so much for being with us.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: And please tells us what the latest situation on the ground is.

KUHN: Well, the fighting is very much as it has been for the past couple of weeks. In Aleppo, the main city in the north, rebels have been attacking various government targets. Yesterday was the main airport on the city's outskirts. Syrian state media said that government troops repulsed rebel attacks.

In the capital, Damascus, there's been shelling in the suburbs there. The government has the upper hand. A lot of the rebels are pinned down in Aleppo, and the rebels movement is very much limited in the capital, and the government is trying to essentially clear out pockets of rebel resistance in strategic areas of the capital such as right near the prime minister's house where there was intense fighting earlier this week.

SIMON: Anthony, with U.N. ending its military observer mission, is there any role for the U.N. in Syria now?

KUHN: Yes, there is a role, and that will be essentially to wait for an opening in case there's a chance to resume a peace process. To that aim, the U.N. will be keeping a smaller liaison office there. The U.N. was considering extending the military observer mission if there was a de-escalation of fighting. But that was not the case, and there are only 100 U.N. observers left out of an original 300.

They haven't really been able to do much, given the heavy the fighting. They've been confined to their hotels a lot. And as their mandate expires on Sunday night, they're beginning to pull out.

SIMON: Lakhdar Brahimi, the Algerian diplomat who takes over as the new U.N. envoy on Syria, is an experienced diplomat. What's he sound like at this moment?

KUHN: Well, he says himself, he's not terribly confident that he can find a political solution or restart peace talks at the moment. But, he says, the U.N. must try. Somebody's got to do something. And apparently, he just wanted some signs of support from people on the U.N. Security Council, the five permanent members in particular, and the U.S. and China have already signaled that they will support his efforts.

He also got a message of support from Syria's vice president, who said Brahimi is welcome there. But on the other hand, that announcement appeared intended to serve another purpose, which is to dispel rumors that Syria's vice president had defected to the rebels. They were saying that's not true.

SIMON: Anthony, you're in the beautiful city of Beirut, Lebanon, and there's been a spate of kidnappings there, a number of Gulf Arab states have told their citizens, in fact, to stay away from Lebanon, which remains a commercial and culture capital in the area. What's the concern like in Lebanon that what's happened in Syria could spill over and trigger civil strife there?

KUHN: Well, Scott, there is a Lebanese Shiite clan in southern Beirut called the Meqdads, and they have their own private army. A member of this clan was kidnapped in Syria by rebels. So as revenge, the Meqdad family kidnapped a couple dozen Syrians this week and a Turkish businessman who was stopped in his car at gunpoint and pulled out.

Now, the Meqdad clan says that the Lebanese government is completely impotent and inept and is doing nothing to help them get back their family members, so they've taken the law into their own hands. This is to some extent true. The government has not done enough to free this person.

But, you know, this clan and the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, with which they're loosely affiliated, pretty much owned much of South Beirut. The army and the police can't go in there without their say so. And that's why there is a perception of lawlessness and a fear of decent into chaos.

Now, Lebanon is small country, and the civil war that last from 1975 to 1990 was certainly a proxy conflict between external powers. And those powers, Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah on one side, and Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey on the other, are now very much busy with a proxy conflict in Syria and they do not have time or attention to devote to Lebanon.

So that is why a full-blown civil war does not appear imminent at the moment, although things are very tense.

SIMON: NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Beirut. Thanks so much.

KUHN: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.