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Syrian rebel commanders warn extremists could gain sway without aid from US, allies

Leading commanders of the Free Syrian Army, in an exclusive interview with Fox News, warn of dire consequences if the Obama administration continues to pay just "lip service" to the rebels and opposition forces.

The commanders say stepped-up aid is needed to give people hope and keep them from turning to extremist elements, such as Al Qaeda or Salafist groups, as the security situation worsens.

Al Qaeda-linked groups and other Muslim extremists are increasingly entering the battlefield to fill the vacuum created by a lack of international support for the Syrian rebels, recent reports suggest. Yet it's the perception that the U.S. and its allies aren't doing enough that worries the commanders, who spoke to Fox News from bases in Syria via Skype.

"People are reaching a boiling point, and more delays of aid and loss of lives risk their turning to extremism," Maj. Ahmed Mustafa Almohammad, deputy head of the Free Syrian Army in Idlib, said through an interpreter.

He warned that Al Qaeda fighters had already tried to cross the Turkish border into Syria and penetrate rebel camps, but he added they had been "contained" for now.

Khaled Habous, head of the Damascus military council of the Free Syrian Army, or FSA, reassured that the rebels reject extremism.

"The FSA takes a very strong stand against Al Qaeda and other extremists, and we will not allow any of our people to go to Al Qaeda and other extremist groups," he said through an interpreter.

Both commanders said they needed U.S. military support to defeat the regime of Bashar al Assad, and were disappointed not to have received any.

They said the Syrian people had huge and urgent needs and would eventually take help from where they could if  U.S. aid was not forthcoming. They spoke of Al Qaeda and other Islamists being ready to fill any void.

"The regime will fall, and we will finish them," Ahmed Mustafa Almohammad said, but he added, "The continued lack of international support will push the ordinary people to the extremists."

The United States remained focused on a cease-fire plan put forward in April by Kofi Annan, the joint envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League, according to an official with the Department of State.

"Further arms will further intensify the violence, and we don't want to contribute arms to an area already awash in weapons," the official told Fox News. "The opposition groups have asked the foreign fighters to leave the country. We believe the Annan framework is the basis to best move forward."

The official spoke in the wake of the resignation of Annan, who quit Thursday, saying the major powers had not sufficiently supported his plan.

Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, the State Department's coordinator on counterterrorism, told reporters this week that he thought the number of Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters in Syria was "relatively small." But he warned of a "larger group of foreign fighters, many of whom are not directly affiliated with Al Qaeda, who are either in or headed to Syria." He added: "Clearly this is a matter of concern for all who fear greater violence in Syria and for regional stability."

Tony Badran a Syria expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, said that Islamists would "always have their own channels to procure weapons and financing." But he also noted the possibility that the "rebels are using this as a bargaining chip to spur the U.S. to take a much more aggressive role in the revolution."

Badran noted, however, that it seemed the Obama administration had "drawn a red line on providing lethal support."

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has called for a more robust U.S. response in aiding the rebels and has raised fears about Al Qaeda filling vacuums left by a lack of aid. Last week, Graham and Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., issued a statement calling on the administration to do more.

"We have the power to prevent this needless death and advance our strategic interests in the Middle East at the same time," they said. "If we do not, it will be a shameful failure of leadership that will haunt us for a long time to come.”

Michael Totten, a foreign policy and terrorism analyst who has written three books on the Middle East, told Fox News that although Al Qaeda was a very small part of the opposition, "it is undoubtedly growing in strength."

"It was bound to happen once the struggle for regime-change became militarized, and it's bound to continue until the government is demolished," he added. "The last thing we need is for Al Qaeda to have any power in a post-Assad Syria, so the U.S. should do whatever it can to speed this thing up."

Follow Ben Evansky @globalposts