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Syria could be on brink of civil war

Syrian citizens and journalists protest outside the EU offices in Damascus on Sept. 29, 2011 against new EU sanctions imposed on the pro-government Addounia television channel and five other companies.

Kai Ryssdal: There was a rare bit of undiplomatic language at the State Department today. A spokeswoman said they "read the riot act" to the Syrian ambassador in response to attacks on a motorcade carrying the U.S. ambassador to Damascus the other day.

It's just the latest development in the long-running protests in Syria. Anthony Shadid covers Syria for The New York Times. We've reached him in Beirut, Lebanon. Welcome to the program.

Anthony Shadid: My pleasure.

Ryssdal: This is, if you check the calendar, the longest-running of the Arab Spring protests. And I'm wondering, best as you can tell -- because foreign reporters can't really get into Syria -- what it's doing to day-to-day life there.

Shadid: Well Kai, I think it depends on where you're at. If you're in Damascus or Aleppo, there still is a notion of normalcy -- however we define normalcy -- but life does go on there. I think a lot of people were struck when they visit those two cities, how much life is unchanged in some ways. Now on the other hand, if you go to a city like Homs -- that's Syria's third largest city -- it's a war zone in some respects. Not all neighborhoods, I don't want to say. But some neighborhoods do have the semblance of a very protracted arms struggle going on there that may last for quite a while.

Ryssdal: About that timing and the length that these protests have already lasted. Is there concern that you can tell of the violence, de-stabilizing in the rest of the region -- Turkey or Jordan or Iraq, to the other side?

Shadid: I think there's a deep sense of anxiety across the region over the implications of Syria's descent into chaos and civil war; what a civil war might mean. And there's no question that if a civil war did erupt in Syria, every neighbor of Syria and the Middle East would have a role.

Ryssdal: As far as you're concerned -- I gather by your choice of words -- this is not yet a civil war?

Shadid: Well I think you see in a place like Homs the makings of a civil war. I think there you do see an armed opposition; you see the deepening of sectarian animosities in a very dangerous way; you see assassinations and killings that would remind you of what we saw in Iraq since 2005. But we can't say that, you know, Homs is a metaphor for the rest of the country, but I think in some ways it does provide a window on what serious uprising could turn into in the months ahead.

Ryssdal: The violence of this week -- specifically the attacks on the American ambassador, Ambassador Ford, the other day -- have brought out strong words from Secretary of State Clinton and the president. You get the sense that Washington is grasping for solutions as to what to do. Is this, in your mind, something that embargoes can solve, can force President al-Assad from power?

Shadid: I think there's a sense out there that the Syrian government is going to eventually fall. I think that's the sense among Americans and, say, Turkish officials. And Turkish officials have played a very key role in this. The question is when. And the answer I was given by someone very senior in the Turkish government was six months to two years. Their idea was that sanctions and economic hardships would definitely play a role. Now I think they could be accused of having some wishful thinking going on. This is a government whose inner circle has not cracked yet, by any means. I mean, is it inevitable they would fall? It's impossible to say, but I think that is the thinking out there. And the thinking is that as the uprising goes on, as economic trouble within the country builds -- and it is building, there's no question about that -- as sanctions have more and more of an effect, eventually you're going to see a crack somewhere within that inner circle.

Ryssdal: Anthony Shadid, covering Syria and the uprisings there for the New York Times out of Beirut, Lebanon. Anthony, thanks a lot.

Shadid: My pleasure, anytime.

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