SARJEH, Syria (AP) – Rebel commander Ahmed Eissa al-Sheikh keeps a paper on his desk bearing the names of the dead from his brigade. The first 16 are neatly typed below a Quranic verse extolling martyrdom. The next 14 are handwritten and crammed into the margin, because the paper is full.
Al-Sheikh, an Islamist with a long black beard and gray fatigues, runs the Falcons of Damascus group from the mayor’s office in his village, which his fighters have taken over. The list is a constant reminder of al-Sheikh’s personal score with the Syrian regime: 20 of the dead are his relatives, including three brothers and his 16-year-old son, all killed fighting Syrian forces in the last year.
One of northern Syria’s most powerful and best-armed commanders, Al-Sheikh boasts more than 1,000 fighters, and they don’t shy away from rougher tactics themselves. They have released prisoners in bomb-laden cars and then detonated them at army checkpoints _ turning the drivers into unwitting suicide bombers.
Most of their weapons are booty, including at least two anti-aircraft guns, some anti-tank missiles and one tank, but they buy arms with donations from “honorable businessmen.” Although al-Sheikh, who ran a grocery store before the uprising, wouldn’t disclose the source or amount, he gets enough to pay some of his men monthly salaries of about $25, slightly more for those with wives and children. His fighters say the cash comes from Syrian expatriates and other Arabs. He was heard on the phone thanking a group in Bahrain.
“God willing, Syria will not bow to anyone but Allah after the regime falls,” he said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Journalist Ben Hubbard was part of a three-member Associated Press team that spent two weeks with rebels in northern Syria, gathering firsthand information on the increasingly bloody rebellion against President Bashar Assad _ the longest and deadliest uprising of the Arab Spring.
Al-Sheikh is one face of the rebel movement in Syria. There are many more.
During two weeks in northern Syria, three Associated Press journalists counted more than 20 rebel groups, with anywhere from fewer than 100 to more than 1,000 fighters each. They go by names like the Idlib Martyrs Brigade and the Shield of the Revolution, and while all share a deep hatred of President Bashar Assad’s regime, their unity stops there.
Simply put, no one is in charge.
This comes at a time when efforts to end 15 months of strife in Syria are collapsing, and the rebel movement has taken the lead in the struggle against Assad. Some countries have talked of boosting the rebels’ capabilities against the regime, and U.S. officials have told the AP that U.S. operatives are sifting among the rebel groups to determine which should receive arms from other Arab nations.
Rebel coordination rarely extends beyond neighboring towns and villages and never to the provincial or national level. Many rebels don’t even know the commanders in towns two hours away.
While the regime has been brutal, so have some of the rebels _ another cause of concern for the West.
Opposition activists filter most information about the rebels sent outside the country, making it hard to get an accurate picture. But several groups said they had sent captured soldiers “to Cyprus,” which the rebels use as a euphemism for execution usually by gunfire.
One group said it had killed two brothers caught collaborating with the regime _ one during interrogation, the other by firing squad.
Rebels have scored small victories against regime forces throughout Syria’s northern Idlib province. Armed with bought, looted or homemade weapons, they have destroyed government army posts and littered main highways with charred army vehicles.
In the countryside, they roam freely in much more territory than was previously known, their bearded, camouflaged gunmen on motorcycles zipping through strings of towns and villages with no remaining police or security presence. Children often hail the fighters with V-for-victory signs and calls of “May God protect you!”
But Syria’s army retains a chokehold on many large towns and cities with tanks, attack helicopters and heavy artillery, weapons that the rebels’ current arms can’t challenge.
Indeed, more than two dozen rebel commanders, fighters and activists said that without better arms they can do no more than chip away at the regime _ a recipe for a long, deadly insurgency.
“If we get military aid, the end will come quickly,” said Ahmed Abdel-Qader, a rebel coordinator in the village of Koreen. “If not, we have no idea how this will end. We are here. We’re not going back. God will decide the rest.”
Even groups associated with the Free Syrian Army, which claims to represent the armed opposition, bemoan the failure of its Turkey-based leadership to deliver aid. While they wait, most rely on guerrilla tactics.
One afternoon, 50 fighters in a vast olive grove crawled under barbed wire, leaped over oil drums and dove through flaming hoops in training for future attacks. Most were in their 20s and 30s and had fled the provincial capital of Idlib when the army seized it in March. Their rifles can’t match the tanks guarding the city, and they can’t afford better weapons.
Commander Maan Dahnin said a Kalashnikov rifle now costs $1,500 and bullets are $4 each. That’s why when they lined up for target practice, most fighters fired only a few times.
Some weapons come from neighboring Iraq, though many are duds, and some from Turkey, he said. The best come from corrupt officers in the Syrian army itself.
“There are those who worry that the regime is going to fall, so they want to fill their pockets first,” Dahnin said.
For now, his group’s 1,000 men never gather in one place, so that if they are shelled or come under fire, not everyone will die. Meanwhile, they focus on roadside bombs built with dynamite, sugar and fertilizer and detonated by remote control.
Like most rebel commanders, Dahnin said his group gets no outside support.
“Here’s the biggest proof,” he said, pointing to a fighter wearing plastic flip-flops. “He’s only good for one thing: toothpaste advertisements,” he said, prying open the man’s mouth to reveal a row of rotten teeth.
The conflict in Syria has already killed more than 14,000 people and appears headed for civil war. The Syrian government has ignored popular demands for reform, instead blaming the violence on armed gangs and foreign-backed terrorists. Others have warned against an influx of Islamists. The AP journalists saw no evidence of foreign fighters.
The uprising reached Idlib in April 2011, about a month after Syrian protesters inspired by other Arab Spring revolts first took to the streets and faced violent security crackdowns.
The protests started small in Ariha, a busy commercial center on the face of a round-topped mountain, but residents were shocked when regime forces shot and killed five protesters in one day, said Khalid Naif, a doctor. Many more people then joined in, armed first with hunting guns and later with attack rifles.
A year ago, the army surrounded the city and took over a downtown building, paralyzing the city center, Naif said. He easily named many of the dozens of people he has treated for gunshot and shrapnel wounds since. Others died before reaching the clinic.
Early this month, when a military convoy arrived to quash the city’s opposition, rebel fighters blew up tanks and armored cars in a hail of gunfire and grenades and stormed the army position downtown.
Weeks later, battle scars remain. Three destroyed tanks sit in the main boulevard, their tops blown off like bottle caps. The former army post is charred black, and walls of nearby buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes.
Graffiti on one wall reads, in English, “The people wants SOS.” Elsewhere: “We bow only for God.”
But the rebel victory was limited. Some stores have reopened and shoppers have returned to downtown, but a ring of army checkpoints restricts movement in and out, forcing many residents to sneak out on foot. Military helicopters and snipers still target the city, wounding more people every week.
The city’s rebel commander, Jamal Akta, who ran a unisex barber shop before the uprising, said the battle had killed 10 civilians and no rebels. While proud of the fight, he said his men could do no more.
“If we get more weapons, we can get rid of all the checkpoints,” he said. “But the ammunition we have now is enough to defend the city, no more than that.”
A ring of checkpoints with a central army post full of snipers and armored vehicles also strangles Khan Sheikhoun, a dusty, sun-baked city further south, on the country’s main north-south highway. Local rebels can’t clear out the army, so they blast military vehicles on the highway with rocket-propelled grenades. Two destroyed armored vehicles, one still on its trailer, now lie in the road, and local fighters say the army has changed its route.
“We can’t face the regime as an army face to face, so we have to fight like street gangs,” said Waddah Sirmani, head of one of the town’s half-dozen rebel brigades.
Fighters have also surrounded the central base and fire on supply vehicles to keep the soldiers inside hungry and short of ammunition, he said.
“You could say that those soldiers are imprisoned among us,” said activist Hisham Nijim.
Almost all the rebels the AP journalists met were from Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, and many consider the fight a religious cause. When asked what they are fighting for, most said they are fed up with corruption, harassment by security services and a system that gives preference to members of the ruling Baath party and the Alawite sect, to which Assad belongs. The word they used most often was dignity.
“If I go to the beach, I don’t want an Alawite to call me a dog and I can’t respond,” said Ahmed Salim, 27, who left the police for the rebels in October. “I don’t want to be treated like an animal. I want to be treated like a human.”
Most fighters said they did not target other sects, only those who had fought for the regime.
There was little evidence of rebel attacks on civilians, but they were often merciless with regime troops. For most, the fight to topple Assad has become personal after they have been chased from their cities, their friends and relatives killed. Many frequently flip through “martyr” photos on their cellphones for inspiration.
One night at al-Sheikh’s headquarters in Sarjeh, a group of fighters flipped through brigade photos on a laptop.
“Martyr, martyr, martyr, martyr, martyr,” they said, pointing out those who had died fighting.
Videos of the group’s attacks showed roadside bombs destroying tanks and flipping over army buses, as Islamic chanting played in the background. In one video, a booby-trapped van sped toward a checkpoint and blew up, splattering two soldiers into nearby trees.
The group was still high on a recent attack that had destroyed a military camp nearby. In the end, they photographed the dead bodies of 35 soldiers, drove off a tank they now park under a tree in the village graveyard and held trials for five captured soldiers. All were found guilty of killing other Syrians.
“They traveled to Cyprus,” al-Sheikh said with a grin. “On a fast plane.”
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)