MAARET MISREEN, Syria (AP) — A year ago, a soft-spoken sweet shop owner from this poor Syrian town got together with his little brother and eight friends to declare war on President Bashar Assad.
They didn't have enough guns to go around. Their leader, 35-year-old Mustafa Filfileh, had no real military experience and little idea how to face one of the Mideast's strongest armies. He didn't even know how to drive.
They learned fast. On Nov. 17, the brigade called "The Beloved of Allah" braced for its biggest challenge yet, making it clear how far its members had come and how far the war had brought them from their former lives.
Men who once sold real estate, laid bricks, wore suits and treated sick farm animals armed themselves with vests laden with ammunition, hand grenades and pocket-sized copies of the Quran. After a two-month siege, they planned to storm a major military base in one of the larger coordinated attacks of the uprising.
It was late 2012, the year that Syria's uprising outpaced the other Arab Spring revolts to become the longest, deadliest and most brutal, killing more than 40,000 people and chasing more than 1 million from their homes.
During the past year, scores of rebel brigades across Syria like The Beloved of Allah have evolved from hapless bands of lightly armed men into formidable fighting groups, shifting the balance against Assad's military. This progress has been marked in recent weeks, with rebels storming military bases and claiming to shoot down government aircraft with newly captured missiles. The government has continued to strike rebel areas, and activists accused it last week of blacking out Syria's Internet for two days.
As the rebels racked up successes, their leadership in exile reorganized under pressure from the West and was recently recognized as Syria's sole legitimate representative by France, Britain and several Arab states. U.S. officials say the Obama administration is moving to do the same.
However, this new leadership body has little traction with the rebels inside Syria, many of whom have evolved during 20 months of conflict from civilian protesters into hardline, Islamist fighters. The shift among rebel groups toward a more militant Islam will likely alienate them from other Syrians and from Western nations that could provide badly needed military aid.
The transformation of The Beloved of Allah, now 150 men strong, was documented in hours of interviews and days spent with the group in June and November 2012, plus dozens of videos shot by its members.
"Our only allegiance is to Allah," Filfileh told his fighters before they attacked the base. "Victory or martyrdom, God willing."
The Beloved of Allah began with ten men, five rifles, one rickety machine gun and a few rocket-propelled grenades soon discovered to be duds. It was born in Maaret Misreen, a town where tractors and motorcycles outnumber cars in Idlib province, a center of rebel activity along Syria's northern border with Turkey.
The town first protested in April 2011, one month after the uprising began in the southern city of Daraa. Filfileh, well-liked by the young men who hung around his sweet shop, helped organize.
Filfileh, then 33, wasn't overly religious, sporting a trim beard and often missing some of the five daily Muslim prayers, his brother Mohammed said. He never cared for politics, but joined the uprising to fight a hereditary regime he felt had done little for poor Sunni Muslims like him.
Syria's Sunni majority forms the backbone of the opposition while Assad's regime is dominated by minority Alawites — an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Through 2011, that regime resorted to increasingly brutal tactics to crush the spreading dissent. By December, Filfileh decided that protesters needed arms, a conclusion reached by many across Syria, starting what would become the Free Syrian Army.
His men pooled their cash to buy guns. They traded a rifle for a van stolen from a security officer, painted it black and adorned the back window with the Muslim declaration of faith, the shehada, a central tenet of the religion that the devout recite in prayer and before traveling, sleep and death: "There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet."
The hood bore their new name: The Beloved of Allah Brigade. The name was inspired by a protest chant about martyrs killed fighting the enemy.
Their first operation was to blow up the house of a Muslim sheik who was arming local residents to fight the opposition. It failed, sparking a two-day clash in December 2011 that killed six people, including Filfileh's brother Ahmed.
"After the battle with the sheik, the whole town rose up and gave up on peaceful means," said Mohammed Tallal, an early member. "It was as if the protesters were tricking themselves."
Young men flocked to the group, leaving their old lives behind. Mohammed Akram, 24, abandoned the suits he wore as an accountant at a brick factory. Abdullah Qadi, 25, dropped his dream to be a professor of veterinary medicine. Abdullah Biram, 23, quit his university business degree. His mother, a teacher, bought him a rifle.
The group's oldest fighter, Mohammed Ibrahim, 41, nursed a grievance. When he was a boy, security forces broke into his home to arrest his father, whom they suspected of belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
"I woke up, saw them and wet myself," he said. "Since then, I've hated the state."
They started small.
"At first we couldn't attack checkpoints, so we did what God gave us the power to do," Tallal said.
They ambushed security officers to steal their cars, sometimes kidnapping them until they promised to leave the regime. Filfileh learned to drive, rushing wounded people to the Turkish border in his black van and ferrying back guns when he could find them. He rarely visited his wife and five children, but argued with his brother Mohammed when he tried to join the group, Mohammed said. Filfileh felt one of them had to stay alive to support the family.
The Beloved of Allah remained weak.
By June, they were hiding from the army in an unfinished, one-room farmhouse. One wall displayed seven of the group's dead, their faces imposed over a photo of the Grand Mosque of Mecca.
Most days, they'd sleep in, then while away the afternoon drinking tea, smoking and complaining about their lack of ammunition. On hot days, they'd don shorts and swim in the farm's irrigation tank.
They had little idea how to get better arms or challenge Assad's tanks.
Through mid-2012, rebel power grew and Assad's army ramped up its response.
Relentless government shelling leveled neighborhoods and killed hundreds. Regular reports emerged of mass killings by the regime or thugs loyal to it, pushing more Syrians toward armed struggle. The government, which often calls the opposition terrorist gangs backed by foreign powers, denied any role, and does not respond to requests for comment on its military. The rebels, too, were accused of atrocities.
Fueling the rebel advances were breakthroughs in arms and organization. Rebels seized a large swath of territory along the Turkish border, and different brigades and groups came together to carry out bigger attacks and solicit funding.
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