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Al Qaeda recruiters are running charm campaigns to win local support and bring more foreign fighters to Syria.

Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria pay their fighters “competitive” monthly wages compared with other rebel groups, and are conducting public outreach efforts such as giving presents to children and teaching them to sing religious chants, Mr. Zelin said.

“They make you feel like you want to be a part of it, like you want to join them,” he said. “It’s very compelling, the way they do it. They’re very good at proselytizing. They’re posting all these pictures online, videos online of all these activities, providing free health care in some areas, providing fuel for people, food.”

The moderate opposition is being “squeezed” between the Islamist rebels and government forces in the civil war, which has claimed more than 100,000 lives.

The United States can do little about the alarming trend, having lost credibility and alienated moderate opposition fighters who are disappointed and angry with empty U.S. promises, analysts said.

“At this point, I haven’t seen any indication the [Obama] administration has any plan of how to deal with the jihadis in Syria,” said Barak Mendelsohn, an associate professor of political science at Haverford College who studies Islamic terrorism.

Washington has protested the influx of foreigners in the war.

“We have been very vocal and clear in denouncing the presence of all foreign fighters,” State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said.