Deborah Amos

In the Jordanian desert, the chaos begins at sundown, when the wind whips up the desert sand and the buses arrive. For the past two years, Syrian refugees have been streaming into Jordan, and they now number an estimated half million.

But for the past month, more refugees have returned to Syria than entered Jordan, and hundreds are leaving daily from Zaatari, the U.N.'s largest refugee camp in Jordan.

"Four buses are going every day," says Kilian Kleinschmidt, who runs Zaatari. "Depending on how many people manage to storm the buses, it's probably 300 to 400 people."

Across the turbulent Middle East, Arab revolts have toppled dictators and strongmen. Jordan remains stable for now but the pressure is mounting.

The Syrian war rages right next door, sending a flood of refugees across the border that has strained every resource in the kingdom.

Jordan shares the region's troubles: a faltering economy; rampant unemployment, especially among the young; and a popular demand for a say in how the country is governed.

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Syria's Arab neighbors are increasingly being drawn into that country's conflict. Over the weekend, the Egyptian president cut all diplomatic ties with Syria and called for a no-fly zone to protect rebels there.

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Jordan's fastest-growing city lies in the middle of the desert, where the sand is so white that from a distance it looks like snow. There's little running water and not much electricity.

The name of this place? The Zaatari refugee camp, home to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees.

"This is a city — not one that anybody would want to create if they had a choice," says Caroline Gluck of Oxfam, one of the aid agencies working in the Zaatari camp. "It's certainly not urban planning at its best."

In November, Razan Shalab Al-Sham, the daughter of a wealthy Syrian family, led the way to the Syrian farming village of Khirbet al-Joz to deliver an unusual kind of aid: police uniforms. A cold winter rain turned the frontier forest between southern Turkey and Syria into a muddy march up a mountain ridge along a smugglers' trail. She climbed the mountain to make the delivery herself.

In rebel-held parts of Syria, a clash of ideologies is playing out. Powerful Islamist brigades are competing with pro-democracy civilians to shape Syria's future.

One battlefront is in the courts. In many areas in northern Syria, Islamists have set up religious courts that deliver rulings under Shariah, or Islamic law — a fundamental change in Syria's civil legal system.

This is evident on a recent day in a courtroom in the northern Syrian city of Azaz.

The Internet is a battleground in Syria, a place where President Bashar Assad's regime has mounted a sophisticated surveillance campaign that includes monitoring and arresting activists by tracking their Facebook pages.

The Syrian Electronic Army, an arm of the Syrian military, is in charge of the monitoring.

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Syria's Islamists have grown in influence as the war against President Bashar Assad's government grinds on. They have proved to be effective fighters, well armed and funded.

But as Islamists have grown stronger on the battlefield, more Syrians are asking about their political ideas and what that will mean for the future of the country.

A recent confrontation between liberal protesters and Islamists in the northwestern Syrian city of Saraqeb, which was caught on video, set off a heated online debate.

A new surge of Syrian refugees is swamping humanitarian aid agencies in southern Turkey, where official refugee camps are full.

But the newcomers may be just the tip of the iceberg. In central Syria, civilians under attack by combat jets, tanks and artillery have fled towns and villages north of the city of Hama, and thousands are on the move.

"What they do now, they burn everything ahead of them. They bomb this area with everything they've got," says Hossan Hamadah, a Syrian-American from Texas.

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