Nightly News   |  July 09, 2012

Rapid change in Syria as rebels gain power

The opposition forces have established safe havens, mainly in the rural countryside, even though weapons are in short supply. NBC’s Richard Engel reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> overseas now to the syrian uprising. an estimated 17,000 dead now with no end in sight. today kofi annan , the special u.n. representative, said he and syrian president assad met and agreed on a plan for ending the violence, but let's remember we have been here before . tonight we're joined by our chief foreign correspondent, richard engel , just back from a week inside syria where he saw some surprising changes that we have not seen, by the way, before.

>> big differences on the ground. first of all that peace plan they're working off seems pretty much irrelevant at that stage. no one is talking about it on the ground. and since this conflict began, the rebels have really been plagued by the fact that they didn't control any territory, and that, now, has changed. the assad forces still control the big cities but they do not control the areas between the cities. that's a big difference. rebels in syria now travel openly on the main highways in uniforms carrying weapons. it was not like this just a month ago. but now the rebels have safe havens -- mostly the rural countryside.

>> the army does not dare come out. if they do, our snipers would get them.

>> reporter: this rebel leader takes us to marara, one of dozens of villages in northwest syria where residents are now celebrating after government troops were driven out. things are changing rapidly in syria where the opposition is taking village after village. every time they do, there's a party just like this one. they're capturing territory with almost nothing. ahmed cooks up a batch of explosives.

>> this is enough to make two big bombs.

>> reporter: before the war, ahmed ran a restaurant.

>> translator: we wanted the uprising to be peaceful, but the government started killing us, so we had no choice.

>> reporter: but ahmed 's inexperience at bomb making shows. after simmering for two hours the mixture of fertilizer and sugar is just too hot. back up, he shouts. as it all goes up in flames. ahmed will have to make more explosives to pack into these water tanks with steel rebar added for shrapnel. this is a rag tag revolution. the bombs' detonators are battery powered and the batteries have to be replaced every five days. but as rebel video shows, the bombs do seem to work. weapons are in desperately short supply. the 635 fighters in ahmed 's unit only have about 150 guns, so they salvage what they can from destroyed government vehicles, like this antiaircraft gun , which they jerry rigged with motorcycle brakes for triggers. rebels say if they had more arms and more money they could topple assad 's regime in weeks or less.

>> translator: we don't need nato. all we need is weapons and we will free our land.

>> you do get a sense, brian, it would not take very much for these rebels to leave the countryside and take the fight to the cities. so far the help from the outside world has not been coming. there's been a lot of money pledged to the syrian opposition but so far it is not getting to the fighters on the ground. if it did, i think this conflict would be over quickly.

>> so days ago secretary of state clinton in paris said kind of flatly the assad regime will fall.

>> oh, yes.

>> and all the evidence does support that.

>> absolutely. i got that impression absolutely that it is a matter of time. and if it's quick, fewer people will die. if it takes longer, he's going either way , more people will die and then the reciprocity and the apr apros -- atrocity in his going would only be worse.

>> good to have you back. i know you have a lot more for this thursday's "rock center" and we'll see