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Rebels dismayed over US statement on Syrian conflict

The key city of Aleppo has come under ferocious assault, bombarded by fighter jets and machine gun fire. NBC's Richard Engel reports from northern Syria.

NORTHERN SYRIA – Syrian rebels are dismayed by the U.S. response to the stepped-up fighting around the commercial capital of Aleppo.

What is the United States saying? Are they not listening? Do they want us all to die?   These are just a few reactions to what in the eyes of the Syrian rebels looked like a weak and confused American position on the ongoing war.

The rebels, who are battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, are specifically reacting to statements from State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.  On Thursday she said Washington is “deeply concerned” about the threat of potential massacres in Aleppo, but that the United States will not assist in the supply of arms to the opposition.

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“We do not believe that pouring more fuel on this fire is going to save lives," she said, adding that there had not been the kind of “groundswell call for external support" seen elsewhere.

Syria's commercial capital has been attacked again by government forces. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

When rebels I’m traveling with heard that, they were shocked.  One young man with a Russian AK-47 by his side could hardly believe it. 


“This is completely the opposite of what we’ve been saying and the opposite of the truth,” he said.  “If they give us weapons, or help us get weapons, there would be less bloodshed, because Bashar would fall more quickly.  The longer the war lasts, the more people will die,” he said.  

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The young rebel is in his 20s, secular, generally pro-American and says he joined the revolt to end government oppression.  His unit has lost 28 men fighting Assad’s government.  His home has been burned down by Syrian troops. 

Ghazi Balkiz / NBC News

Rebels on a motorcycle in Northern Syria. Click on the photo to see a complete slideshow of life behind enemy lines for Syria's rebels from NBC News.

Yesterday, I met one of his neighbors, Umm Ahmed.  She says she’s 105 years old, the oldest woman in her village.  She’s nearly deaf.  Her eyes are cloudy with cataracts.  She has shrapnel in her leg from a Syrian artillery shell that exploded by her home.  Her son, 74 years old, lost a leg. Her other son was killed by Syrian forces; her friend, a woman of 85, had her house burned by government troops. 

The young rebel who was so surprised by U.S. statement says he wants weapons to defend his neighbors and free his country from an army that he says is attacking the Syrian people.  His unit is armed mostly with homemade bombs and a few rifles. 

He doesn’t understand how giving him the ability to defend himself and 105-year-old Umm Ahmed, who still walks everyday even with an injured leg, is “pouring fuel on the fire.”  The fire in Syria is already burning.

Ghazi Balkiz / NBC News

Umm Ahmed, 105 years old, is a resident of a village in Northern Syria who was has shrapnel in her leg from a Syrian artillery shell that exploded by her home.

As for the groundswell, every rebel I’ve spoken to for the last month – each one I’ve quoted in articles or seen quoted in articles written by other reporters – has asked for outside help.  The rebels don’t want American troops on the ground, they want to fight to free the country themselves, but they do want U.S. assistance in obtaining arms.

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Russia is openly supplying the Assad government with weapons.  Iran has military trainers on the ground, according to numerous witness and Western intelligence reports.  The rebels are fighting with bombs that look like firecrackers.  It’s hardly a fair fight. 

From here in the war zone, the State Department’s fears about a massacre in Aleppo seem like crocodile sympathy.  A rebel here explained it to me like this.  “If a person is drowning, and you have a life preserver in your hand and don’t throw it, but only talk and say you’re sorry he’s drowning, then you are responsible too.”

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Stringer / Reuters

After months of protests and violent crackdowns, a look back at the violence that has overtaken the country.

Many people in rebel-held areas are starting to suspect that Washington is in a secret alliance with Assad.

It seems clear that the situation in Aleppo is only going to get worse. 

Rebels say that 100 armored vehicles have already been sent to attack the city of 3 million people.  Aleppo is already surrounded and strafed by jet and helicopters. 

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If a massacre does happen in Aleppo, rebels will believe the U.S. saw it coming but chose to do nothing other than express concern and sympathy and claim nobody asked for help.  They are asking for help.  They say they want to prevent a massacre in Aleppo before it happens. 

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