ALEPPO, Syria -- The voice of Islamist groups is growing louder in Syria as a number of Syrians in the battleground province of Aleppo are expressing increasing interest in establishing a government that leans toward a strict Islamic state.
Analysts say the move is a shift in Syria, which has had a longstanding presence of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood but whose people have largely shunned radical Islamic jihadism.
"Traditionally, Syrians have trended toward more moderate interpretations," says Mohammed Ghanem, director of strategy for the Syrian-American Council.
"If you look at the history of the country, we've never had those trends or patterns of the population shifting to those hard-line positions," he said. "This has never happened in the history of the country."
The shift comes as radical groups from outside Syria have increasingly become part of the fight against the regime of Bashar Assad, whose military has lost ground recently in its attempt to beat down a uprising against his dictatorial rule.
Syria is a largely Muslim country in which Sunnis Muslims are the majority. Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, are a minority make up the top members of the Assad regime. Christians also have lived in Syria for centuries.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which believes in a form of Islamic law and rejection of Western culture, has been active here for decades. But Syrians who favor an Islamic theocracy or imposition of strict Islamic law have never been a driving force in Syria. However, the Syrian secular regime created by Assad's father in 1971 has cracked down relentlessly and violently on dissent of any kind, including Islamist ideals.
The Wahhabist Sunnis, who form the backbone of the al-Qaeda terror group, have had no significant homegrown movement here. Assad did allow its members to transit through Syria to fight the Americans in Iraq, though, and his main ally in the region is the theocratic state of Iran.
The U.S. State Department implicitly recognized the growing influence of extremist groups in Syria last month when it designated as a terrorist group Jabhat al-Nusra, which is fighting the Assad regime in Syria. The State Department said the group's ties with the group al-Qaeda in Iraq were among the main reasons for its decision.
While many in Syria look upon Jabhat al-Nusra with trepidation, it has won support among many Syrians who see it as both an effective military organization and a generous humanitarian group.
"Through aid, Jabhat al-Nusra can enlarge its base of public support more and more," said Abu Ali, a Syrian involved in relief efforts in Aleppo. "Many people are starting to support them because of the aid."
Among its ranks are Syrians and foreign fighters who have battle experience in Iraq and elsewhere, according to the State Department. Jabhat al-Nusra receives considerable funding from Arabian Gulf states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, according to several news reports.
The funding has allowed Jabhat al-Nusra to increase operations in Syria at a time when moderate groups simply lack the resources, rebel commanders say.
Members of the group have been clashing with Assad's troops near at least three airports. Jabhat al-Nusra fighters attacked a helicopter base near the village of Taftanaz in Idlib province. Videos posted online showed them blasting at targets inside the airport with heavy machine guns mounted on pickups.
"If it continues like it is now, groups like Jabhat al-Nusra will have a lot of influence after the Assad government falls," says Abdul Rahman, an opposition military commander in Aleppo who considers himself a moderate.
Even some Syrians who want an Islamic state in a post-Assad Syria view groups like Jabhat al-Nusra as extreme.
One former member, Abu Osama, says he left the group after it tried to get him to sign an oath pledging to fight with the group anywhere in the world. Now fighting with the rebel Free Syrian Army, Abu says some fighters with Jabhat al-Nusra consider Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an infidel because he has not enforced sharia -- strict Islamic law -- in Egypt.
The group, which forbids tobacco use, has also been known to pull the cigarette out of the mouths of smokers going through their checkpoints. But not everyone thinks they will have significant influence in a post-Assad Syria.
"These groups are no more scary to us and the general population than fringe groups in the U.S. like the skinheads," says Abu Ahmad, executive officer of the Free Lawyers Association in Aleppo, which opposes Assad's regime.
After 40 years of the Assad family's harsh rule, Syrians simply want a government that is the opposite of what they've known, Ahmad says.
"What's happening is a reaction to Assad saying Syria was a secular state," he says.
Few Syrians interviewed in Aleppo believe that a brand of Islam like that practiced by Jabhat al-Nusra can survive in Syria. But any regime that succeeds Assad is likely to be Islamic in nature, some say.
"We want a regime that applies sharia law, but that is fair and just," says Abu Mohammad, a Free Syrian Army commander in Aleppo and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
"Many Muslims believe that if we apply the true Islam, we can use it to get rid of corruption and problems like bribery," he says.
By Tom A. Peter