Syria rebels: U.N. is of no use to us

A Free Syrian Army rebel fighter aims his weapon at the bodies of four members of the pro-Assad Berri family after the men were executed by the rebels in Aleppo, as seen in a Youtube video posted on July 31, 2012.
Syrian rebels execute members of a pro-Assad family
A Free Syrian Army rebel fighter aims his weapon at the bodies of four members of the pro-Assad Berri family after the men were executed by the rebels in Aleppo, as seen in a Youtube video posted on July 31, 2012.

(CBS News) LONDON - As the 192 member nations come together at U.N. headquarters Friday to put in writing a majority opinion that President Bashar Assad's regime deserves the lion's share of the blame for the violence tearing his country apart - the rebels fighting his powerful military will pay little attention, if any at all.

"The rebels have no concern whatsoever for what's going on at the U.N., they feel the U.N. has been ineffectual," says CBS News correspondent Charlie D'Agata, who has been reporting this week from just outside Aleppo, on the front lines of the battle.

The fraught international diplomacy, ostensibly vying for a peaceful resolution to the crisis, is "a sidebar" to the rebel forces, who have been ramping up their fight against Assad's army and militias across the country for 17 months, says D'Agata.

Thursday's resignation announcement from U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan - prompted by the U.N. Security Council's deadlock with Russia and China refusing to endorse a call for regime change or tough sanctions against Assad, as the violence escalates - "may have seemed urgent to the rest of world, but to the rebels it was an irrelevance."

The rebels' disillusionment with the politics and diplomacy on the world stage is deeper than disinterest. While the local groups fighting Assad vary hugely in their makeup - and while foreign jihadists are joining their ranks - they all consider themselves revolutionaries against an unjust regime, and they are angry at the lack of support they have received from the West - which, they note, was happy to help their counterparts in Libya topple Muammar Qaddafi.

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D'Agata says if the rebels could write a wish-list, it would not include a U.N. resolution condemning Assad, or sanctions aimed at his regime, it would, instead, ask for a no-fly zone to keep Assad's helicopters and warplanes at bay, and more weapons. What the rebels want, says D'Aagata, is "a level playing field."

CBS News' crew got within a mile of Aleppo this week, the nation's largest city and the focus of the fighting. Even from that distance, D'Agata says you can see and hear very easily that "it is a war zone."

Assad's regime has now used helicopters and warplanes against opposition-held areas of the city, and regime tanks have reportedly circled another part where rebels are dug in. While they have seized a handful of tanks and other prizes from the regime in battle, the rebels remain vastly outgunned - in both personnel and hardware.

But in their pleas for more and bigger guns, the rebels have yet to add one thing to their wish-list which might actually get it considered more seriously in Washington: organization. The lack of clear command and control may be standing in the way of the rebels' fight against Assad in a far more tangible sense than the political impasse at United Nations Headquarters.

The U.S. State Department, and Syria's neighbors in Iraq, say al Qaeda has infiltrated the rebel movement. Regardless of whether the jihadists inside Syria truly represent the terror network, which is based 2,000 miles away in the mountains of western Pakistan, they are undeniably in Syria, fighting alongside the rebels.

D'Agata says he's seen foreign militants from Africa, even Eastern Europe, walking freely in rebel-held territory this week. They come across the border from Iraq and Turkey to join the fight against Assad on religious grounds - Sunni Muslim jihadists eager to join what they see as a holy war against the regime which has long favored the minority Alawite sect, and Syria's even smaller Christian population.

It is a motivation shared, at least in part, by many of the native Syrian rebels, the vast majority of whom are devout Sunni Muslims and who joined the fight after 42 years of perceived persecution at the hands of Assad's ruling family.

But the presence of the foreign fighters, and the clear lack of control exerted by commanders of the most prominent rebel group - the Free Syrian Army (FSA) - over its men, gives legitimate pause even to some of the Assad regime's most ardent foes. A video (graphic video) which surfaced earlier this week of rebels lining up men from a pro-regime family, known to have fueled the fight against the FSA, and then executing them as they knelt in the dirt, was only the latest unpalatable example of war crimes committed by the forces begging for Western help.

There is no clear picture of how many foreign fighters are now inside Syria, and while the FSA remains dismissive of claims that they are now fighting alongside al Qaeda, D'Agata says they do not deny the presence of the jihadists. More importantly, the FSA has shown little ability -- or perhaps interest -- in controlling the various groups which claim allegiance.

  • Tucker Reals

    Tucker Reals is the foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.