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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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In this Tuesday, Oct. 30, photo, a Syrian woman is stopped and questioned by rebels at a checkpoint in the Bustan Al-Pasha neighborhood, the boundary of the controlled area by rebel fighters at the northeast limit of Sheikh Maaksoud in Aleppo, Syria.

Narciso Contreras/AP

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When asked about the role of Islamic jihadists in Syria's long-burning civil war, an Aleppo hospital doctor recalled what prompted one Syrian to join their ranks.

The man had returned to his house one day to find it had been destroyed by a bomb, and his wife and children among the dead. "Give me one reason why I should not join the jihadists!" the man cried, recalls the doctor. "They will give me my revenge, while all the rest of the world drinks a cup of tea and says, 'Oh, it's so sad.' "

Aleppo has become the crucible of the 20-month rebellion against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad. But despite a rising death toll and a shared aim of removing the Syrian leader, US officials have stopped short of giving decisive support to rebel forces, citing fears that weapons and cash would find their way to Islamist fighters with an anti-US agenda – many of them from abroad – who have joined the fight.

Still, as the desperation in Syria mounts, with tens of thousands dead and no end to the conflict in sight, rebel commanders say the American effort to limit rebel capabilities may be spurring exactly what the United States had hoped to avoid, by extending the war and deepening the influence of Islamist fighters.

Some are Syrians looking for unbridled revenge by joining Islamist units that routinely take on frontline combat. Many others are foreign fighters coming from places as diverse as Chechnya and Iraq, where they often have had past combat experience.

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