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Amateur jihad tests Syrian rebel resources

Syrians' war seems to be drawing ever greater numbers of fellow Arabs to the battlefield.

Free Syrian Army opposition fighters battle government security forces during the siege of the Shaar district police station in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. Picture: AFP.

ALEPPO - Talal Mohammad is a long way from Tennessee, and he's out of his depth.

In an olive grove a few miles from the frontlines of Aleppo, he's at a loss to explain to a battle-hardened bunch of Syrian rebels what exactly this prosperous, U.S.-trained Saudi dentist is doing there - and what he can offer to their cause.

"Why have you come?" asked one of his new comrades, sharply, as they shared a traditional evening meal, the iftar to break the Ramadan fast, in the twilight of a makeshift training camp.

"Don't get us wrong," the man adds quickly, anxious to show due respect to a guest at this solemn ritual of shared faith in Islam. "We appreciate your solidarity. But if you'd brought us money and weapons, that would have been much better."

Syrians' war to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad seems to be drawing ever greater numbers of fellow Arabs and other Muslims to the battlefield, many driven by a sense of religious duty to perform jihad, a readiness to suffer for Islam.

But while some are professional "jihadists", veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan, Chechnya or Libya, who bring combat and bomb-making skills that alarm the Western and Arab governments which have cheered the rebels on, many of these foreigners have little to offer Syrians but their goodwill and prayers, and plenty have ended up floundering well beyond their comfort zone.

For some rebel commanders, they are just getting in the way.

"It's very different on the ground," Talal Mohammad conceded as he shouldered his laptop and prepared for the short trek to the Turkish border and then a flight back home to Saudi Arabia and the wife and two young daughters he had left behind three weeks earlier, expecting to take part in a swift rebel victory.

"I was going to Syria thinking the liberation was a step or two away," said Mohammad, who spent a decade studying in the United States. Instead, he found a bitter, grinding, bloody struggle in which his dental qualifications from Tennessee and a willingness to do his bit proved to be of little interest to ill-armed rebels facing Assad's tanks, artillery and warplanes.

Senior fighters around Aleppo say it is a common story:

"This week alone, I have welcomed to Syria two doctors, a lawyer, a karate trainer and a social worker from Britain," said one who goes by the name Abu Mohammed and who leads a formation known as the Soqour al-Sham, or Falcon of Syria, Brigade.

"We have no shortage of men at all," he added. But some are more trouble than they're worth.

"I realise it's a religious duty to come to Syria for many of our brothers," said Abu Mohammed. "But those who come with no idea how they can help beyond their faith can be a burden."