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Tourist town's new wave of visitors: Fighters on their way in or out of Syria

Ammar Cheikhomar / NBC News

The Old Market in Antakya, Turkey, has become a frequent stop for jihadists on their way to or from Syria, where they are battling the regime of President Bashar Assad.

ANTAKYA, Turkey -- In the Old Market of the ancient city of Antakya, there is a palpable sense of unease.

For wandering among the ordinary shoppers and tourists drawn to this border town -- known in antiquity as Antioch -- are hardened fighters like Abu Muntaser Alliby.

“I wish to die in Syria while I'm defending the oppressed there,” said the 27-year-old Islamist fighter from Libya, a veteran of three six-week tours in Syria who adopted a false name when he took up arms.

Antakya has gone from a tranquil stop on the tourist trail sometimes called "Tuscany with minarets" to a key staging post for the thousands of foreign fighters who have flocked to wage jihad against President Bashar Assad in Syria, bolstering the ranks of al Qaeda and Taliban-style militias.

Brig. Gen. Salim Idris, the commander of the Free Syrian Army, tells NBC's Richard Engel the Syrian government used chemical weapons "more than four times" against civilians, dropping them from planes.

The presence of Alliby and others like him has sparked angry protests by local people in the city. But others have profited, with shops springing up to supply the new demand for camouflage clothing, communication devices, backpacks and other equipment.

Their presence has also created a headache for the rebel Free Syrian Army. While they are allies in the struggle to topple Assad, their goal of establishing one Islamist state covering the entire Arab region is far removed from the FSA’s hopes of a democratic Syria.

And they are also cited as the main reason why the U.S. and other Western countries have not supplied the rebels with arms -- as some may end up in the hands of Alliby and his comrades.

Some analysts now believe this policy has inadvertently helped groups like Jabhat al-Nusra -- officially allied with al Qaeda in Iraq -- and the Syrian Islamic Front, an umbrella body of disparate groups with a similar ideology to the Taliban. At the moment, they're the only ones getting a steady stream of money and weapons and therefore are more attractive to would-be fighters than the poorly armed FSA.

But, listening to Alliby, it’s easy to see why the Obama administration is nervous and Israel might decide to take military action.

“We all have the same goal, which is to bring down the Syrian infidel regime and raise the banner ‘no God but Allah’ in Syria,” he said as he looked through the market for a backpack.

Ammar Cheikhomar / NBC News

The Old Market in picturesque Antakya has become a haunt for jihadists on their way to or from Syria. Many in the town are upset by their presence, but the fighters are buying, so vendors are selling.

“I guess that this is  the goal of every Muslim in Syria. ... We are all Muslims and we all ask for the jihad and hope to die while we are defending our religion,” he said. “I said goodbye to my parents and friends. I don't want to go back. I hope that I die in Syria or in Palestine.”

“I think any mujahed [jihadi] in Islam wishes to fight in Palestine against the Jews,” he added. “And I hope that we can have a center of Muslim mujahedeen [holy warriors] in Syria to proceed from Syria to liberate Palestine. Jihad starts from Syria and ends in Jerusalem.”

Alliby, who said he fought in Libya during the revolt against Moammar Gadhafi during which one of his brothers was killed, added that while the Libyan dictator was bad, Assad was significantly worse.

“He is not a man; he is a monster who doesn't know the meaning of humanity and doesn't respect anyone in his dirty war -- not the young, not the old, no woman and no child,” he said. “We see what is happening daily in Syria and how the people suffer there. I mean killing and destruction and displacement.”

Alliby said he was a member of a jihadist Islamist organization. He refused to name the group, but he was unusually open. Most jihadists refuse point-blank to speak to Western media.

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In addition to jihadists, Antakya has also drawn journalists from around the world. One hotel is known as the BBC’s base, another is home to al-Jazeera. The jihadists, too, have their favorite hotel at a discreet distance from media camps.

It is at the bargain end of the market, but -- unlike the cheapest establishments -- provides an Internet connection and breakfast.

The Free Syrian Army might not run to such luxuries. Its fighters literally count their bullets and struggle to buy equipment in marked contrast to the well-funded, well-armed Islamist groups.

Luay Mukdad, political and media coordinator for the Free Syrian Army, admitted some FSA groups were “short on weapons, short on money and communications, so that’s what’s forced them to cooperate” with extremist fighters.

“Let me be honest, as long as Jabhat al-Nusra is holding their ground against Bashar Assad, there’s no problem,” he said.

Al-Nusra was designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. in December and formally announced its alliance with al Qaeda in Iraq last month.

Mukdad said the Islamists fighters’ strength had been exaggerated in the media, but he warned that unless the West helped the FSA they would become stronger and more dangerous -- for Syria and the Middle East. While the Islamists hate the West and shun their support, the FSA believes it cannot win without its aid.

Ammar Cheikhomar / NBC News

Though angry protests have sprung up against Islamist fighters stopping in Antakya, so have shops to supply the new demand for camouflage clothing, communication devices, backpacks and other equipment used in war.

“We want Syria to be a civil country and we want to build our democracy,” he said, envisioning a country with “respect for all people” after the downfall of Assad.

Mukdad said the FSA would not allow extremists to take over the country.

“If Jabhat al-Nusra choose to be like al Qaeda or something and start trying to force people to do all the extremist things, like to force … the girls to put on the hijab or to do anything, the Free Syrian Army will protect the Syrian people,” he said. “Make us stronger. We want to protect our country and not let these people steal our future.”

Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East expert at the U.K.-based Chatham House think tank, said the best solution to the civil war would be an international military intervention, but he accepted that was not going to happen. The second-best option was arming the FSA, he said.

“What’s pushing people to join the jihadists is they are well-funded, well organized and they have the weapons,” he said. “They get them from private sources in the Gulf mainly. The others [non jihadist groups], they have to count their bullets.”

But Shehadi said that most ordinary Syrians now believed that the U.S. was on their side and the idea of Taliban-style rule was “not something that would fly” in ethnically diverse Syria.

“America used to be unpopular on the Arab street, when it used to support dictators. What’s emerging now is … an indication of American soft power,” he said. “[Syrians] want to be more like America than they want to be like Iran, Gaza or North Korea.”

Ammar Cheikhomar / NBC News

Vendors at the Old Market have found that jihadists coming in and out of Syria can be good customers. The militants are generally well funded compared with mainstream rebel forces.

Professor Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Police Violence at King's College London, carried out a study that estimated there were 5,500 foreign fighters in Syria, most from the Middle East and North Africa.

Like Mukdad and Shehadi, he said the West should arm the FSA to provide a counter to the hard-line Islamist or Salafist groups and accept this would mean some weapons would fall into their hands.

"We're so afraid of funding the wrong people ... but the absence of our funding has actually made that more likely because the only money that comes through right now is this hard-core Islamist money," Neumann said.

He added, however, that all was not what it seemed in Syria.

"There has been in the past a huge incentive [for commanders] to pretend they are Salafist in order to get some weapons," he said. "There are perfectly secular commanders who've grown beards and who are flying the black flag of Islam on YouTube just in order to qualify for funding from Kuwait."

Ian Johnston reported from London.

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