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 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 mayors office in his village, which his fighters have taken over. The list is a constant reminder of al-Sheikhs 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 Syrias most powerful and best-armed commanders, Al-Sheikh boasts more than 1,000 fighters, and they dont 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, wouldnt 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.
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 Assads regime, their unity stops there. Simply put, no one is in charge.
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 dont 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 Syrias 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 Syrias army retains a chokehold on many large towns and cities with tanks, attack helicopters and heavy artillery, weapons that the rebels current arms cant 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. Were 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 cant match the tanks guarding the city, and they cant afford better weapons.
Commander Maan Dahnin said a Kalashnikov rifle now costs $1,500 and bullets are $4 each. Thats 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 groups 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.
Almost all the rebels the AP journalists met were from Syrias 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 dont want an Alawite to call me a dog and I cant respond, said Ahmed Salim, 27, who left the police for the rebels in October. I dont 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.