By Carlo Muñoz - 08/16/12 06:36 PM EDT
Rebel fighters squaring off against Syrian government troops in brutal fighting near the city of Aleppo could turn to al Qaeda for support if Western powers do not take military action against President Bashar Assad.
"We don't want al-Qaeda here, but if nobody else helps us, we will make an alliance with them," Abu Ammar, a rebel commander stationed in Aleppo, told Reuters on Thursday.
"And you can bet if Al-Qaeda comes here ... the city will become their base within three months," according to Ammar.
Syria was a common thoroughfare for al Qaeda insurgents heading to Iraq during the bloodiest days of the U.S. war.
The White House has already signed off on a plan ordering American officials to begin laying the groundwork for arming Syria's rebels, vetting certain elements of the Free Syrian Army to evaluate whether they meet the criteria to receive equipment and arms supplied by various Gulf states.
But DOD and the White House have held off on efforts to supply Syrian fighters with weapons directly, amid concerns that if heavy weapons are funneled into Syria, it’s possible those arms could later be turned against American or allied troops by al Qaeda fighters.
In recent weeks, Assad's forces have mercilessly targeted rebel strongholds in northern Syria and across the country, zeroing in on rebel positions with attack helicopters and fighter jets.
Rebel leaders have pleaded with the United States and its allies to establish a no-fly zone in northern Syria, patrolled by American airpower, as a way to counter Assad's blistering air assaults in Aleppo and elsewhere.
A number of senior U.S. intelligence and defense officials, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan, have said the creation of no-fly zones is one of many contingency options being considered for a post-Assad Syria.
However, a top American diplomat on Wednesday openly questioned whether Washington had the legal authority or the military wherewithal to enforce no-fly zones along the Turkish-Syrian border.
"There are serious legal and practical obstacles on this issue," U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone reportedly told Turkish media outlets.
But as Washington continues to weigh the pros and cons of a no-fly zone, rebel commanders on the ground in Aleppo claim their forces are quickly running out of time.
"We want them to give us weapons to defend ourselves or to intervene militarily," Ammar said. "We are angry. The Syrian people still like the European countries, but if it continues like this, you end up hating them."
That hate could end up pushing Syria's rebels into an alliance with al Qaeda, whose fighters are now operating independently alongside groups like the Free Syrian Army and other anti-Assad factions in the country.
News of a possible al Qaeda alliance comes amid recent reports that formerly disparate groups of al Qaeda militants operating in Syria are now coordinating themselves into functional terror cells.
That type of consolidation among al Qaeda forces in the country could lead to the growth of al Qaeda faction in Syria, akin to those headquartered in Yemen, Africa and Iraq, according to U.S. intelligence.
The Defense Department continues to argue that Al Qaeda militants have not infiltrated the rebels' ranks, but that scenario could change quickly if rebel leaders decide to open up their forces to the terror group.
While that move could give anti-Assad forces the advantage they need to counter the government's continuing onslaught in Aleppo, it could derail any chance rebel forces have at securing U.S. military support.