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Support for jihadists in Syria swells as US backing of rebels falls short

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Rebels have received small arms, ammunition, and communications gear from the US and other sources. Yet heavier equipment has not arrived, such as surface-to-air missiles, which rebel commanders say would turn the tide of battle in their favor by stopping Syrian aircraft and helicopters from bombing rebel-controlled territory. 

Arming the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), or not, has become a hot US presidential election issue. In the final debate last week, President Obama said the US was doing “everything we can” to help the opposition, but warned that “to get more entangled militarily in Syria is a serious step,” and that the US had to be “absolutely certain that we know who we are helping.”

Likewise, Republican candidate Mitt Romney said he would “make sure they have the arms necessary to defend themselves,” as long as weapons don’t get into “the wrong hands. Those arms could be used to hurt us down the road.”

But on the ground, many Syrians say the US reluctance to support their cause is yielding more jihadists, and more radical ones. 

And it's questionable whether American reluctance is significantly hampering the flow of weapons to jihadists. 

"If the Americans do not give us weapons, then the jihadists will get them from somewhere else," says Abu Baraa, a local Aleppo commander. In his view, current US policy "has opened the doors for jihadist Islam, not for moderates.”  

Another result, often voiced in this embattled city, is that even though the US shares rebel aims, its limited support for the fight itself has ignited widespread anger toward Washington – and even prompted speculation that the US wants the Syrian regime to win.

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