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The brigade, formed last month, now boasts more than 7,000 fighters, Salameh said, bringing together some of the armed factions in the Aleppo region that cropped up as army recruits defected and locals took up arms. Before a new group can join, it must agree not to target civilians or their property and to bring all prisoners to one of the brigade’s two prisons, which now house some 500 captives.

This is to prevent fighters from settling personal scores or kidnapping wealthy people for ransom, Salameh said.

Like most rebel leaders, Salameh bemoaned the lack of military support he said the rebels had received from abroad. The small amounts trickling in from governments and private groups he declined to name have done little to help his fighters, most of whom carry arms taken as booty or bought from dealers in Turkey or Iraq.

Salameh acknowledged that many rebel groups operate independently and that a small number want to kill Shiite Muslims and Alawites, the Shiite offshoot sect to which Assad and many in his regime belong.

He said such views violate the tenets of Islam that his group follows, but said not all fighters can be vetted.

“When we’re at war, I don’t have time to ask every fighter what his views are,” he said. “I tell him to put his rifle next to mine and fight.”

Most of the brigades in the enclave region formed to fight the army in their own towns and moved on only after their streets were “liberated.” Many of these battles were Pyrrhic victories, leaving entire areas destroyed and depopulated.

In the town of Atarib, 30 kilometers (20 miles) southwest of Aleppo, every building downtown is damaged, with windows blown out, doors peppered with shrapnel and awnings shredded to ribbons.

At the center sit the charred shells of the police station and city hall, which troops occupied in February. For months, local rebels attacked their positions and tried to cut their supply lines. By the time the army left in June, the city was destroyed and deserted.

When asked how many of the town’s 25,000 residents had returned since its “liberation,” the head of Atarib’s military council laughed.

“If you put them all in the back of a semi-truck, there’d still be space,” said Obeid Ahmed Obeid. Others guessed it was a few hundred.

Nearby, Fatum Obeid, a 50-year-old widow, wandered through the wreckage of her simple home, asking God to destroy Assad and his mother.

Two of her sons had been killed in the uprising. One returned from his mandatory military service in a body bag with no explanation. Another was shot dead by a government sniper before she and other residents fled to nearby villages.

“We’d sit and watch the troops come, then hear the booms and see the smoke,” she said.

Town leaders have formed military and civil councils and opened a prison that holds some 15 people.

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