1. Archive


The fighters have no one in charge and can sometimes match the regime's brutality.

Associated Press

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.

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 past 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 antiaircraft guns, some antitank missiles and a 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.

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. 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.

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.

Rebels have scored small victories against regime forces throughout Syria's northern Idlib province.

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.

"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."