- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 26, 2012

SARJEH, Syria — 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 Koranic verse extolling martyrdom.

The next 14 are handwritten and crammed into the margin, because the paper is full.

Mr. 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 his 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Mr. al-Sheikh is one face of the rebel movement in Syria. There are many more.

Unknown leadership

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 Mr. Assad.

Some countries have talked of boosting the rebels’ capabilities against the regime, and U.S. officials even have spoken of secret plans to sift among the rebel groups to determine which should receive arms from other Arab nations.

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