SARJEH, Syria (AP) - 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 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 last 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 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, 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.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Journalist Ben Hubbard was part of a three-member Associated Press team that spent two weeks with rebels in northern Syria, gathering firsthand information on the increasingly bloody rebellion against President Bashar Assad _ the longest and deadliest uprising of the Arab Spring.
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. 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 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.
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 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 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!"
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. We are here. We're not going back. God will decide the rest."
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