Rebels now control more and more of Syria's territory, but a new problem has arisen, observers say: in its desperation, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad may decide to unleash its arsenal of chemical weapons.
The rebels control several of the official border crossings, particularly those between Syria and Turkey, according to a report by NBC News correspondent Richard Engel, who has made repeated trips in and out of the country.
“There is a new fear, here, however – and that is chemical weapons,” Engel reported Tuesday. “That is something they are completely unprepared for. They don't have gas masks, they don't have an early warning system, and they worry that the Assad government in desperation could use chemical weapons.”
The foreign correspondent added that the rebels are appealing to the United States, the United Nations and anyone that could help to provide them with training and medical equipment in case there is an attack.
Engel himself was just released on Monday after being held in captivity for nearly a week, along with several other members of his production crew, including Turkish and Syrian nationals. Engel, the Chief Foreign Correspondent for NBC News, was head of the crew that included producer Ghazi Balkiz and camera man John Kooistra. The news team was kidnapped by a group of unidentified men, their faces swathed by kefiyyas, just after they crossed the border into Syria. They were freed on Tuesday, December 18.
It was later revealed that Engel's team, as well as several other journalists with whom they were held, including reporters from ABC News and CNN, had been abducted by Shiite Muslim operatives, possibly Iranian-dispatched Hizbullah terrorists backing the regime. They later escaped during a daring rescue operation in which rebels exchanged gunfire with his captors as they transported the hostages to a second location. It was believed the journalists were to be offered as part of a deal in a prisoner swap for Iranian hostages being held by the rebels.
Numerous journalists have been killed, wounded and kidnapped while covering the Syrian conflict over the past 20 months. Attempts to verify information are extremely difficult due to the unwillingness of the Assad regime to allow journalists to enter the country. Those who do are tightly monitored and censored.
More than 41,000 Syrians have been killed in the savage civil war that continues to rage unchecked across the country, and which occasionally spills over its borders as well.