ISTANBUL // With little international aid reaching Syria's besieged population, Islamist militants such as the Al Qaeda-linked group Jabhat Al Nusra are building support by providing food and other items in scant supply after two years of civil war.
By distributing fresh vegetables, bread, cooking oil, water and blankets to Syrians in rebel-held areas, the Al Nusra fighters - considered one of the most effective rebel groups but blacklisted as terrorists by the US - have exploited an opportunity to boost their popularity for when the regime of Bashar Al Assad falls.
"It's a way for them to win hearts and minds even if people don't agree with their ideology," said Aaron Y Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, referring to the group's end goal of creating a strict Islamist state.
"They are essentially trying to build a constituency and build support within society."
Mr Zelin said it's difficult to tell whether the support is simply tied to the provision of services, "but this is very important ... even if it is just soft support it is still significant."
The United Nations has said the humanitarian crisis in Syria has reached "catastrophic" proportions, with about 2.5 million people lacking enough food in the war that has killed an estimated 60,000. Another 2 million have been displaced.
Yasser Al Hajji, an opposition activist who has helped organise food donations in Aleppo's northern countryside, said that Al Nusra has been distributing food and other supplies after claiming success in battles against regime forces. He said the source of the organisation's supplies is unknown, but Gulf countries are known to be the strongest supporters of Islamic groups.
Al Nusra's promotional video on the internet last summer shows masked fighters delivering fresh vegetables in the eastern Deir Al Zour province, where the group has seen a number of military victories. In the eastern Deir Al Zour province, the group was reported to have imposed strict Sharia rules on areas where it defeated government troops.
Al Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front, is not the only group involved in humanitarian support. Members of the Syrian Islamic Front, an umbrella group comprising different rebel brigades, also provides aid. At least one of these brigades, Ahrar Al Sham, even formed a humanitarian relief office.
In a promotional video posted online, Ahrar Al Sham's unarmed relief workers deliver mattresses and blankets to civilians with a religious anthem playing in the background. "Participate in calling people to Islam," say the lyrics.
In some places such as the embattled city of Aleppo, militant Islamists have also stepped in to provide security after other rebels angered locals by looting, said Nicholas A Heras, a Middle East analyst at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington. In Aleppo and the eastern city of Mayadin, they have imposed a semblance of order on chaotic lines for bread and cooking oil.
"People who have to wait in line for bread for days become highly susceptible ... when you have organisations step into the void and control the line and make sure people get fair and equal access to basic food stuffs they are viewed as having social capital," said Mr Heras.
Al Nusra continues to claim victories on the battlefield, as it did on Monday by capturing the Furat dam, giving it control over much of the water flow in the country's north and east. But as its influence grows, so does the potential to create conflict with other rebel groups that do not share its goals of a strict religious state.
At a rebel base at Atme in northern Syria, at least four fights have broken out in recent weeks between the factions - at least one of which degenerated into an exchange of gunfire.
In the village of Qah in Idlib province, Al Nusra fighters arrested a man for cursing after a minor car accident, sparking a standoff with villagers when they brought him before an Islamic tribunal. The arrested man was the brother of a respected local leader and longtime insurgent, who quickly mobilised dozens of armed men, residents said.
After a prolonged face-off with Al Nusra fighters during which some militants were kidnapped, Qah residents secured the release of the arrested man in exchange for an Al Nusra commander. The man was released only after his beard had been trimmed, witnesses said.
In Idlib province's Saraqeb, a scuffle broke out on Friday when supporters of an Islamist rebel faction tore up the flag of the Syrian revolution.
"The risk for them [Islamists] is without winning the support of the people, they will suffer the same defeat as other Islamists, like in Algeria in the 1990s and later in Iraq," Mr Zelin said.