While Salameh and other rebel commanders have pledged to respect Syria's pluralistic society, which includes many ethnic and religious minorities, the jihadis are increasingly framing this war as part of a regional struggle between the Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam.
Assad and many of the top people in the regime belong to the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and the jihadis are framing the struggle in Syria as another front in the battle against what they perceive as heretical Shiites.
In the numerous online statements celebrating their nearly daily operations in Syria, Jebhat al-Nusra, or Victory Front, the largest jihadist group, often states that the attacks are to "avenge the Sunnis killed by the apostate regime."
Despite their smaller numbers, the jihadis bring experience in fighting guerrilla wars as well as their own supply lines for much needed weapons and ammunition, making them attractive to local Syrians to join.
"The infiltration of weapons and funding to these groups, as well as the ethno-religious component of the Syrian uprising, is likely to continue to serve as a source of attraction for many fighters, some of whom are ex-Free Syrian Army soldiers and many of whom are from foreign countries," noted the September report by the Quilliam Foundation about the role of jihadis in the rebellion.
The jihadis also have a reputation for heading straight to the front lines. Few were in evidence in the countryside, where many rebel units are involved in managing the civilian areas.
A French physician with Doctors Without Borders working near the front lines in Aleppo said in an interview last week that based on style of dress and what their companions said, half of the rebels he treated were jihadis, both foreign and Syrian.
In the end, the 12 bearded men who threatened the car full of journalists may have backed down because of wanting to maintain a good relationship with the civilians from the nearby village.
The more a rebel group is entrenched in the population, the more self-discipline it will exercise and the less likely it will engage in atrocities, Harling said. The problem with the jihadis and foreign fighters is that they often have few links with civilians.
"There is no jihadi precedent in the Islamic world that hasn't ended in one way or another in total failure, which makes it difficult to understand how it carries so much appeal," he said.
Wounded flood hospitals in Syria's largest city
ALEPPO, Syria — It had been a calm day in Aleppo's Shifa Hospital, said Dr. Osman al-Haj Osman, his face etched with exhaustion from just three hours of sleep. Then, a man burst in bearing the shrieking bundle of a 6-year-old girl who'd had a machine-gun bullet rip through both her knees.
Two months into the battle for Syria's largest city, civilians are still bearing the brunt of the daily assaults of helicopter gunships, roaring jets and troops fighting in the streets.
Shoving aside the orderlies and armed rebels milling around the cramped lobby Tuesday afternoon, the man deposited Fatima Qassem onto a gurney as a nurse swooped in and began cutting away the blood-soaked bandages on her knees.
A doctor reached in and pulled out an inch-long fragment of metal. There was a gush of blood. Large sections of bone and muscle were missing from the back of her knee.
She cried out plaintively for "Baba," because the man who brought her was not her father — just someone who had rushed her across town to the hospital. The family was hopefully on its way.
There was a piercing scream as the nurse picked her up again, jostling her awkwardly dangling legs and carrying her around a narrow corner into a small operating theater. Her cries subsided into a steady moan.
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