Introducing a report on the ongoing civil war in Syria on Monday's NBC Nightly News, anchor Brian Williams made sure to promote PR from the White House: "...the State Department and the Pentagon are now working together on plans for Syria after Assad, hoping to avoid the chaos they believe broke out because of the lack of planning for a post-Saddam Iraq." [Listen to the audio or watch the video after the jump]
However, the report that followed by chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel seemed to undermine the notion of a well-planned U.S. strategy in Syria against the Assad regime: "A rebel commander with a hundred fighters in [the city of] Aleppo told us today if the rebels don't receive a massive influx of weapons within the next 72 hours, they'll have to give up the fight."
Even more stunning, on Sunday's Nightly News, Engel reported that the lack of support and weapons from western countries was actually driving Syrian opposition forces into the arms of Al Qaeda: "Ali's men don't have enough weapons to fight and they're dying.... Al Qaeda, he says, has offered his unit money and weapons, and he's willing to take it....they'd rather have support from the United States, the U.N. or Europe, but it hasn't come. Without support, Al Qaeda could make major inroads in Syria, among rebels so desperate for help, they'll take it from anywhere."
While Engel's reporting certainly implied inaction by the Obama administration was actually creating "chaos" in Syria, neither he nor Williams dared to mention such a possibility.
Back in May and June, NBC routinely dismissed Republican calls to arm the Syrian rebels. On the May 30 Nightly News, chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell helpfully touted White House talking points: "Others, including John McCain, say the U.S. should arm the rebels. But the White House believes the only real options are to squeeze Assad economically and diplomatically."
In a June 13 Nightly News report, Mitchell hit Mitt Romney in a similar fashion: "Mitt Romney says the US should arm the rebels, but today former Secretary of State Colin Powell argued the US should not get in the middle of Syria's civil war."
During an interview with McCain on the June 17 edition of Meet the Press, host David Gregory interrogated the Republican senator over his calls to arm opposition forces:
JOHN MCCAIN: This president does not believe in American leadership and American exceptionalism. And so we need to give them a sanctuary, we need to give them equipment, working with other nations in the region and give these people a chance.
DAVID GREGORY: But you say he doesn't believe in American exceptionalism just because he won't send arms into what could become a bloody civil war?
MCCAIN: No, no. Every-
GREGORY: That's what you want to get involved in?
MCCAIN: No. Everything that the president has displayed from the beginning of his presidency is that he does not believe in American-
GREGORY: So you are not worried about the kind of civil war we've seen elsewhere in the Middle East by, by adding arms into a sectarian conflict in Syria?
MCCAIN: And you are not worried about a continued massacre and slaughter of people – innocent people, women being raped and children being tortured and killed? You're not worried about that? You should be.
GREGORY: Leaders make decisions all the time about where and – where to intervene and where not.
MCCAIN: Leaders make-
GREGORY: We're not intervening in Darfur and those women are being raped and kids are being killed there, too.
Here is a full transcript of Engel's August 5 report detailing the growing influence of Al Qaeda in Syria:
BRIAN WILLIAMS: And turning to news overseas, we continue our reporting on the civil war in Syria. And there are concerns just tonight that Al Qaeda may be trying to infiltrate rebel groups battling the Syrian government. Our chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel tells us tonight he has found evidence, in the rebel group he's been traveling with, of the very same thing.
RICHARD ENGEL: Rebels from the Justice Brigade meet at one of their headquarters and head out on a scouting mission for an attack on a Syrian military check point. They move to a hill top. Hidden among olive trees, they can see Syrian troops on a road below and discuss how best to ambush them, with bombs and machine guns. From here they can see the Syrian military positions that they plan to attack and there appear to be five, maybe six armored vehicles.
But the brigade commander, Ali Bachran tells us the mission must be called off. Ali and his men are deeply frustrated. It's the second attack they've had to cancel for lack of weapons in two weeks. Ali's men don't have enough weapons to fight and they're dying. We've been with Ali's unit on two trips for nearly a month. His fighters are secular, welcoming to foreigners, not religious extremists. So we were shocked by what Ali told us. Al Qaeda, he says, has offered his unit money and weapons, and he's willing to take it.
ALI BACHRAN: We will accept arms and money from anyone, even Al Qaeda.
ENGEL: Ali's brother and top lieutenant Ahmed, who has no interest either in Al Qaeda, was even more insistent they take Al Qaeda's offer.
AHMED BACHRAN: I will go to them and raise their flag if they give me support.
ENGEL: Ali and Ahmed both say they'd rather have support from the United States, the U.N. or Europe, but it hasn't come. Without support, Al Qaeda could make major inroads in Syria, among rebels so desperate for help, they'll take it from anywhere. Richard Engel, NBC News, northern Syria.