A staffer at a field hospital in a rebel-held part of Aleppo, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals for talking about the group, said the al-Nusra fighters ‘‘are fine now, because they are fighting alongside the rebels.’’
An AP team witnessed some of the frictions at the field hospital in mid-October. Several al-Nusra fighters entered, and one of them — a tall, lanky non-Arab dressed in black with a black headband — was enraged by the presence of foreign journalists at the facility.
‘‘They are all spies who are here to collect information,’’ he said in English, shaking the automatic rifle that was slung over his shoulder.
Another fighter, who appeared to be of North African origin, tried to force a female photographer to leave the hospital after she attempted to photograph the X-ray of a wounded fighter’s head.
A Syrian rebel commander confronted the two men.
‘‘There is nothing in Islam that permits you to treat guests like this. Furthermore, it is a woman,’’ he said. The fighters left and the commander offered tea and dates to the photographer and several other journalists.
Opposition members also worry that the presence of foreign jihadis in Syria lends credibility to the regime’s repeated assertions that the rebellion is the work of terrorist groups carrying out a ‘‘foreign conspiracy.’’
Jabhat al-Nusra has claimed responsibility for a string of suicide bombings, including several in Damascus. It unleashed an Oct. 3 suicide blast in Aleppo that killed more than 30 people, targeting a square where pro-regime fighters congregated. After each blast, the rebels’ Free Syrian Army umbrella group underlines that it does not approve of suicide bombings as a tactic.
‘‘Their presence is reducing the popular support that we desperately need in areas where we operate,’’ a senior political official of the Free Syrian Army, said in neighboring Turkey. ‘‘I appreciate their motives for coming to Syria. We cannot deny Muslims their right to jihad, but we want them to leave.’’ He spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss concerns over the group.
Still, in Aleppo, the image of pious Islamic warriors coming to help in the fight against Assad is an attractive one. Though Jabhat al-Nusra is predominantly made up of foreigners, a few Syrians have joined, mostly ultraconservative Muslims.
Syrians can join only if they are backed by two full members who must swear on the Quran to tell the truth about the applicant. The fighters run training programs for their Syrian members as well as others who want to learn fighting skills but don’t want to join the group.
The high esteem in which the Jabhat al-Nusra fighters are held has a great deal to do with the unruly behavior and lack of discipline of many rebels.
One recent night, al-Nusra fighters brought the bodies of four Syrian rebels who were killed when a fellow rebel they were interrogating over suspicion that he was stealing grabbed an assault rifle and shot them. A fifth rebel was wounded.
Later, when comrades of the four dead heard the news they gathered outside the hospital and, enraged, fired their entire bullet magazines into the air. Another group of fighters reacted similarly when struck by grief over the death of a comrade.
Residents of Aleppo also complain that some rebels take unfair advantage of their position.
Fighters go straight to the front of the line at bakeries to buy bread when residents have to wait hours for their turn. Some demand that wounded comrades be treated ahead of civilians at the field hospital.
‘‘I don’t have time to wait in line,’’ said a 19-year-old army deserter who joined the rebels in Aleppo and gave only his first name, Hani.