- 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.

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 in rebel shorthand means execution. So many poor Syrians have died trying to reach the island that the phrase “send to Cyprus” has become synonymous with “put to death,” 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!”

Little to no support

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.”

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.

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, Mr. 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.

Battle scars

The conflict in Syria already has 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 physician.

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, Dr. 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.

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