Syria's war has taken on an increasingly sectarian nature, and the rebellion is now dominated by factions affiliated either directly or ideologically with al-Qaeda, including the assorted al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and Jabhat al-Nusra factions.
Though there are surely Syrian extremists fighting in these groups, large numbers of them are foreigners, and their motivations don't begin or end at the Syrian border, Jason Ditz writes in an article on Anti War.
Far from seeing Syria as a special case, these militant groups see Syria as the beginning of a region-wide war, targeting the Muslim world.
The imposition of Taliban-style law in parts of northern Syria has been a major culture shock for Syrians, who have for centuries had relatively secular governments.
Many people in those towns are simply fleeing, since the foreign fighters are eager to call any minorities as their enemy.
Those who are staying behind are seeing very awkward attempts by al-Qaeda to do "outreach" to sell the locals on their style of rule. Those towns in the Aleppo Province are now ground zero for a region-wide war.
"In Syria, [the extremists] have a level of control they never enjoyed in Iraq," the British daily Independent quoted Aymenn al-Tamimi, an expert on Syrian militant groups at the Middle East Forum, a Washington non-profit research organization. In addition to their fighting and organizing skills, he said, they appear to have absorbed lessons from Iraq, where al-Qaeda's indiscriminate attacks against civilians horrified and repulsed ordinary Iraqis.
"They've learned that you do need some outreach to locals – you can't just entirely exploit them," Tamimi said. A key part of that strategy, he added, is "outreach to children".
In the competition for local sympathies, the advantage so far belongs to Jabhat al-Nusra, an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq which has publicly aligned itself with Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's long-time deputy and his successor as the leader of al-Qaeda.
Since its founding early last year as a Syrian rebel group, Jabhat al-Nusra has played down its connections to the international terrorist movement while seeking to limit collateral damage from the suicide attacks and roadside bombings.
Yet in recent weeks al-Qaeda's most powerful offshoot in Syria, Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS), has also sought to reform its image by reopening schools and delivering food, medicine and energy to war-weary towns. It has sponsored ice-cream-eating contests and tug-of-war competitions for children, and built training camps where teens learn fighting skills and participate in singalongs calling for the destruction of Assad and his allies.
Some Syrians who disapprove of ISIS's ideologies said they applauded the arrival of the disciplined, battle-hardened force if it could shift the momentum in a fight that has appeared deadlocked for months.
Despite the leadership rift and differences over tactics between two al-Qaeda-linked groups, the two factions cooperate more often than they clash, according to US and Middle Eastern experts.
"They operate in parallel to one another," said Aaron Zelin, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "They have different command structures, and Isis uses more foreign fighters. But they swim in the same ideological waters."
Many in the Muslim world, including political figures and prominent clerics have been alarmed by the extent of al-Qaeda's influence on potential minds regarding the case in Syria.
At the occasion of Muslim pilgrimage event of Hajj, Iran's Leader Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei called for unity and brotherhood among Muslims and awareness against extremist and takfirism plots aimed at discord among in the Islamic nations.
"The existence of civil wars, religious and denominational prejudices and political instabilities, the prevalence of cruel terrorism, the emergence of extreme groups and orientations- which like savage tribes in history, cut open the chests of human beings and rip their hearts out with their teeth- the emergence of armed mercenaries who kill women and children, cut off the heads of men and rape women and who do such horrible and disgusting crimes in the name of religion are all the products of the satanic and arrogant plots of foreign intelligence services and their regional agents," Ayatollah Khamenei said.