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Will world inaction help al-Qaida gain foothold in Syria?


Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

Free Syrian Army fighters take cover behind sand bags during clashes in Aleppo on Sunday.


Richard Engel, NBC News' chief foreign correspondent, has just left Syria after spending three weeks reporting on rebel forces in the north of the war-torn country.  Based on his three weeks of reporting, he offers an analysis of what could happen if the international community does not intervene in the conflict.

ISTANBUL, Turkey  Al-Qaida units are already entering Syria. 

Pickup trucks waving their black flags and carrying hard-looking men are increasingly evident on Syrian country roads. 

It wasn't like this just a few weeks ago.  A year-and-a-half ago, Syrian rebels started the fight to topple President Bashar Assad’s corrupt police state and end four decades of sectarian favoritism. The majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims but they have been ruled by Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. 

Rebel forces claim to have downed a Syrian fighter jet

The rebels have watched Russia arm the government. They have seen Shiite Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah send fighters and military advisors to help Assad. 

They have also watched the United Nations send observers without authority, and the United States make what seem to many appear to be toothless condemnations. 

Rebels say minority Shiite and Alawite Muslims, the groups that have ruled Syria for decades, are being left alone in the carnage inflicted by Syrian troops. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

So al-Qaida, the world’s most extremist Sunni group, is offering itself as a solution, a savior of the revolution.  It is arriving flush with money and weapons, as I reported last week.

I have spoken with rebel units who told me they were offered large amounts of money, in exchange for pledging allegiance to al-Qaida. But it comes with a caveat: they can not leave. One rebel commander told me that one of his relatives had joined al-Qaida and tried to leave – but was executed for his apparent treason. 

Still others are taking up the opportunity.

"I will go to [al-Qaida], and raise their flag if they give me support," one rebel told me. 

"I'd take money from al-Qaida.  What choice do I have?  I can't defend myself or my family," another rebel commander said.  "I'll take the al-Qaida support, and then deal with them later.  Otherwise there won't be a later." 

At least 262 al-Qaida militants are now operating in the border area between Turkey and Syria and rebels say another group of fighters are living in a tented camp just outside Aleppo, Syria's largest city. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

He's the most secular Syrian I know.  He hates al-Qaida, but feels he may have to deal with the devil to save his family and village.

Even the most secular rebel groups say they're tempted, and no wonder.  I've seen rebels at checkpoints with empty magazines in the rifles.  They have homemade grenades in pipes and shaving cream cans. 

The country's biggest city, Aleppo, has been under attack for two weeks and the rebels are dangerously close to running out of weapons. Now Riad Hijab, the first Syrian cabinet minister to defect, has fled the country. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

It's easy to forget that without international support, the rebels in Libya would have lost the war and been massacred.  And the Syrian rebels are asking for much less than what was given to Libya.  They don't want ground troops, although they would take a no-fly zone, if offered.  All they’re really asking for is ammunition and a few hundred anti-aircraft and anti-tank rockets.  

Violence intensifying in Syria: the battle continues in Aleppo

Meanwhile, the United States says it doesn't know who to arm, and that it doesn’t want to give weapons to the wrong people. 

While Saudi Arabia and Qatar are believed to be arming Syrian rebels, and the United States and Britain pledged to step up non-lethal assistance to Assad's opponents, many say this is far from enough.

Al-Qaida may be trying to  infiltrate rebel groups battling Syrian government forces. NBC's chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel tells about the evidence of the terrorist group's presence.

The United States, rebels say, is paralyzed because of the upcoming presidential elections.  Washington can’t take decisive action because of November’s vote, many rebels contend.

US, Turkey explore no-fly zones over Syria

So while the vast majority of rebels hate the idea of an al-Qaida base in Syria, they also don't want Assad to stay in power and continue his killing spree.  And international inaction may give the United States' worst enemy a gift that it has always wanted – a base at the heart of the Middle East. 

NBC News

People resisting the army of President Bashar Assad in northern Syria cope with loss and prepare for fighting.

And this would be a danger to Syria, its neighbors, and the United States.

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