Support for jihadists in Syria swells as US backing of rebels falls short
US reluctance to provide weapons and cash to Syrian rebels is increasing the appeal of joining with well-funded and well-armed jihadists, many of them from abroad.
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"The jihadists in Aleppo are so few, and we take them as a burden. We don't need them – we need their weapons, their fighters," Abu Ibrahim says. "We are ashamed to tell them to get out. They came to fight with us and we must appreciate that. We can't stop them because the West has not come to help."Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Battle for the heart of Syria: inside Aleppo
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We 'need' Al Qaeda
Rebel commanders say that Washington's fears are overblown, and that Syrians will not accept any future control by a minority of Islamist ideologues.
"The Americans have Islamophobia. They are afraid of any Muslim, and think he's a copy of Osama bin Laden," says Sheikh Mahmoud Mujadami, a cleric and rebel commander in a western district of Aleppo.
"If the Americans study Islam, they would see many shared things: justice, democracy, problem solving," says Mr. Mujadami. "The jihadists are so few, and they don't know anything of the religion of Islam. They have a brain like a rock; they can't change their thinking. [But] they are strong in the field."
The Americans, he says, are "mistaken" about the threat posed by jihadis. Even rebel commanders who present an overtly religious face assert that Islamic radicalism can't take root in Syria – and that their top priority now is ending Assad's rule.
"The jihadis are 10 percent of the FSA. They are strong in the field, they think they are defending Muslims in Syria – they will never fight Syrians or cause trouble," says Abu Baraa, the local Aleppo commander, who sports a thick beard. On the wall in his headquarters in a downtown school is a three-foot-tall gilt replica of the door of the Kaaba, the monument in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, toward which every Muslim faces for daily prayers. Military-green cloth hangs on either side of the large golden Kaaba door to resemble the material draped on the monument. Folded prayer mats are nearby.
"Now [jihadists] are helping us, and we are grateful. That man is fighting for me, and I respect that," says Abu Baraa. "The jihadists say, 'When we finish here, we will go elsewhere.' They are not from Al Qaeda, they are defending Muslims."
Abu Baraa says the US "doesn't care how many Syrians die – for them we are like bugs."
Meanwhile, current US policy has been a gift for jihadists, he argues. It "has opened the doors for jihadist Islam, not for moderates," he says.
"The jihadis here do not have hatred of Americans. They believe in helping people who are suffering and enslaved," he adds, noting that the anti-US insurgency in Iraq was fueled by the 2003 invasion, and events such as abuses at Abu Ghraib prison.
"You have to know the difference between jihadists and Al Qaeda," he says. "There are some Al Qaeda fighters here, but we need them now."