Syrian rebel leader commends U.S. endorsement

(CBS News) BRUSSELS - The United States has a lot at stake in the Syrian civil war.

President Barack Obama has suggested American firepower might be needed to prevent the dictatorship from using chemical weapons.

CBS News reported Tuesday the administration will endorse one of the rebel groups fighting to overthrow Bashir al-Assad.

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Highlights from the interview with Syrian rebel leader Moaz al-Khatib

Who are these new American allies?

Moaz al-Khatib is the man chosen to lead a newly formed coalition of Syria's opposition groups.

"The U.S. administration has big influence globally," Khatib said in Arabic. He told CBS News an endorsement from President Obama would pull the rug from under the regime on all levels; politically, economically and militarily.

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The Damascus-born cleric has long been an outspoken critic of the Syrian government. He's been jailed several times since the uprising began. In July, he finally fled to Cairo.

Now he travels the world asking for international support for Syria's opposition.

When asked if he feels the international community has done enough to help Syria, he said not at all.

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"The international community fell short in its support to the Syrian people, but it is starting to wake up now," he said.

So far, though, the U.S. has refused to arm the rebels because of concerns about the rising role of Islamic extremists in the rebellion.

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CBS News has spent quite a bit of time inside Syria and has seen extremists operating on the ground, but Khatib said the media is exaggerating.

"What the media has been reporting there are terrorist or radical groups, but we have not seen concrete evidence to support such claim yet," he said.

When asked if he's like to be the president of Syria, Khatib said in English, "I am not thinking about that now."

But with rebels closing in on the capital, the question of who takes over from the regime is an urgent one.

These Syrian rebels are fractured into a number of groups and one of them was labeled a terrorist organization by the Obama administration. Nusra is one of a number of shadowy radical Islamist groups on the ground. They've been welcomed by many Syrians because of their numerous military successes.

But the arrival of these types of groups has created a real shift on the ground that journalists can feel. Rebel fighters have been asking, "do you work for the CIA? Do you work for Israel?" There is a lot more talk about jihad, and often these voices are drowning out the voices of more moderate activists.

  • Clarissa Ward

    Foreign Correspondent, CBS News