RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

We're going to hear now about the shifting fortunes in Syria's civil war. Rebels fighting to bring down the regime of President Bashar al-Assad are gaining new ground and securing new weapons, including surface-to-air missiles that can take out the regime's helicopters and warplanes.

MONTAGNE: These are pressuring government forces to fight harder. At the same time, international efforts to find a diplomatic solution are also intensifying. We'll hear in a moment about the evolving views of Russia, a Syrian ally.

GREENE: But first, to a big concern in the United States, that the more powerful weapons now in the hands of rebels might one day fall into the wrong hands, namely Islamist militants who are fighting alongside the rebels.

NPR's Kelly McEvers spent some time with these Islamist fighters in the embattled city of Aleppo, and she sent this report.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: It's about 9 o'clock in the morning, and already, it's been a long day for Abu Anas. He's lost two men to a regime sniper. Four more have been injured. But still, Abu Anas walks with a striking calm through the bombed-out, ruined streets of Aleppo. He wears a black headband bearing Islam's holy creed.

ABU ANAS: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Abu Anas commands a unit of Kataib Ahrar al-Sham, the Brigades of the Free People of Syria. It's a religious group that, like other rebel groups, wants to bring down the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But it's what they would do after that downfall that sets the Islamists apart.

Abu Anas believes that once the Syrian regime is toppled, an Islamic state should replace it - a state he says would bring peace and prosperity.

What if other people don't want Islamic law? How are they going to reconcile that? How's that going to work?

ANAS: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So he says that they don't decide. People are the ones who's going to decide. If the people doesn't want that, that's their decision.

MCEVERS: It all sounds fair enough, but Ahrar al-Sham isn't known for its tolerance. Abu Anas refused to meet with our female interpreter until recently. But the fact that his group believes in the people's right to choose their leaders shows they're not the most hard-line Islamists in this fight.

That honor falls to a group called Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Front for Support. They are much more secretive and much more violent. The group has claimed responsibility for multiple suicide attacks that target military installations, but also have killed scores of civilians.

I ask Abu Anas if he believes in suicide attacks.

ANAS: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I mean, like, they die daily, 200 or 300 Syrian people a day. So if giving away his life would save thousands of Syrians' lives, he would be ready to sacrifice himself to let the others live.

MCEVERS: These days, terrorism experts say it's less about whether a group will launch suicide attacks and more about who gets the weapons.

Lately, Abu Anas' group and the more hard-line groups have been working side-by-side with the less-religious, more-moderate rebels who call themselves the Free Syrian Army. They're all working together to take Syrian army bases and weapons. Some analysts say this was a calculated move on the part of the Islamists. Not only are they vying for weapons and power, but, for the first time, they're bowing to public pressure to be less extreme.

Last month, Islamist fighters released a video denouncing the political opposition that's working to bring down President Assad. They later retracted the video after criticism from Syrian civilians.

Charles Lister is an analyst at IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center. He says the retraction was a good thing.

CHARLES LISTER: However, that was a retraction of a video that came out while Assad is still in power, and whilst they have relatively little to lose. I think the situation could feasibly change. If Assad was actually to fall, there'd be an awful lot more to play for. And so I think some kind of tension is inevitable.

MCEVERS: Secular rebel commanders have gone even further than that. One told me the next war will be against the Islamists. Another was cocky: If we can get rid of Assad, don't you think we can get rid of those guys?

But will it be so easy? By many accounts, the Islamist militants fighting in Syria now number in the thousands, and their ranks are growing every day.

It's another morning, and we're driving into Aleppo. The driver offers a friend a ride. The friend is about 16. His name is Omar. Omar has just joined Ahrar al-Sham, the Islamist group of Abu Anas.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Omar says he and his parents fled Syria after the regime's army shelled their village. We ask Omar why he wants to fight for an Islamic state.

OMAR: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: The government would stop killing people, he says. It's the only way to get them to stop the killing. Beyond that, I don't know, he says. The rest of it is up to our leaders.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

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