Syria’s fighters share some of those misgivings. But they also see in the foreign extremists a welcome boost: experienced, disciplined fighters whose battlefield valor against the better-armed troops of President Bashar Assad is legendary.
Nothing typifies the dilemma more than Jabhat al-Nusra, a shadowy group with an al-Qaeda-style ideology whose fighters come from Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the Balkans and elsewhere. Many are veterans of previous wars who came to Syria for what they consider a new “jihad” against Assad.
The group has become notorious for numerous suicide bombings during the 19-month-old conflict targeting regime and military facilities. Syria’s fighters have tried to disassociate themselves from the bombings for fear their uprising will be tainted with the al-Qaeda brand.
But several hundred fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra - Arabic for “the Support Front” - have also been a valued addition to fighter ranks in the grueling, three-month battle for control of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.
Their reputation in battle circulates among Aleppo’s fighters like an urban legend. Soon after opposition forces launched their assault on the city in July, government troops almost drove them out of the key district of Salaheddin - until 40 Jabhat al-Nusra fighters rushed to the front and fended them off, according to a story told by many fighters.
The group’s fighters have played a similar role along the multitude of front lines that divide this city of 3 million people, where regime forces and fighters have been at a standstill, fighting street to street but unable to score a decisive victory. Many fighters talk of the al-Nusra fighters’ prowess as snipers.
“They rush to the rescue of fighters lines that come under pressure and hold them,” one fighter said. “They know what they are doing and are very disciplined. They are like the special forces of Aleppo.”
But he added: “The only thing is that they are too radical.” He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals by both Jabhat al-Nusra and the Assad regime.
In a statement posted on militant websites Wednesday, Jabhat al-Nusra rejected a proposed cease-fire during the four-day Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday, which starts Friday. International envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has been trying to cobble together such a truce, saying the government in Damascus and some fighters have agreed to the idea.
But Jabhat al-Nusra called a truce a “filthy game,” saying it has no faith that Assad’s regime would respect one. Some Syrian fighter leaders have also expressed skepticism, since previous cease-fire attempts have gone nowhere.
Jabhat al-Nusra is the largest grouping of foreign jihadis in Syria, and the fighter say they number about 300 fighters in Aleppo, as well as branches in neighboring Idlib province, the city of Homs and the capital Damascus. Any direct links to al-Qaeda are unclear, although U.S. and Iraqi officials have said they believe members of al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq have crossed the border to join the fight against Assad.
There are no reliable figures for the number of foreign fighters in Syria, although available estimates put the number in the hundreds, rather than the thousands.