Ben Hubbard, writing for Associated Press, tells the story of The Beloved of Allah Brigade from its creation last year through its seizure of a major regime military base last week:
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.
The Beloved of Allah rode this current. In August, [brigade leader Mustafa] Filfileh coordinated with other rebel groups to attack an army convoy heading to the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, hauling off machine guns, rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and more ammunition than they'd ever had. He also associated his group with the Farouq Brigades of Aleppo, an umbrella group.
Farouq bought regular supplies of ammunition from arms dealers in Turkey and Iraq with aid from abroad. In return, the Beloved filmed its victories against the regime and claimed them for Farouq to solicit further aid.
All the while, the war was growing more sectarian, with the Sunni Muslims who led the revolt becoming increasingly dominated by Islamists. Extremist groups also waded in, terrifying Syria's Christians, Alawites, Shiites and other minorities.
As the war dragged on and the rebels lost more friends and family members, Filfileh and his men, all Sunnis, increasingly sought motivation and solace in the only ideology with any traction in their patch of rural Syria: Islam. Filfileh grew out his beard, spiced his speech with increasingly religious rhetoric and wore black, Afghan-style outfits, adopting the image of a fighter in jihad, or holy war.
In September, The Beloved coordinated with a half dozen other groups to besiege the 46th Regiment of the Syrian army, near Aleppo. The group had never worked so closely with so many other fighters or tried to take a major military base. They hoped its fall would provide them with valuable booty.
After one failed raid, they realized they didn't have the firepower to take the base. So they divvied up the territory, cut the supply lines and braced for a long wait.
The Beloved of Allah held a section near a gated community of luxury villas they assumed belonged to rich businessmen and government officials. They settled into a stately, white villa with a columned entryway, a grassy, tree-lined yard and a swimming pool half full of green water and trash.
"The first time I walked into this villa, I saw that four of its doors were worth more than my entire house," said Qadi, the veterinarian.
The place had three stories, but the fighters stayed on the ground floor, hoping the house wouldn't totally collapse if the government bombed it. The army shelled the area regularly and most of the house's windows were blown out. But the ground floor had a fireplace to keep it warm and a foosball table to fill idle days.
Militarily, the group had advanced much. Instead of wasting ammunition in frequent clashes, they put snipers in the villas overlooking the base to cover more ground with fewer bullets.
"If you can't destroy a car or shoot a solider and kill him, don't fire," Filfileh said.
One afternoon, the scraping sound of a fighter jet filled the villa. Fighters rushed in, fearing an airstrike.
"To the trucks!" Filfileh yelled.
Within minutes, trucks with anti-aircraft guns blasted at the jet. It dove and struck nearby, sending up a huge cloud of gray smoke.
The rebels downed two jets and sent another away smoking, Qadi said. He had a video of a flaming L-39 training jet falling from the sky, and another of rebels chanting over its wreckage. The videos and claims could not be independently verified.
As the siege drew on, scores of soldiers defected from the base, reporting that morale inside was low and food was short, Qadi said. The helicopters dropped packages of bread. Sometimes, the bread fell to the rebels.
When the attack on the base finally came, Filfileh called his men together.
Many had long hair and scruffy beards and laughed at how different they looked from their clean-cut selves in old ID photos. They wore camouflage uniforms and black headbands with "There is no God but Allah" embroidered on their foreheads.
Filfileh told them to look out for each other, to fight to the death and to take no prisoners. He said they were fighting for everyone who had been killed or wounded during the uprising. But he framed the fight in stark religious, not political, terms.
"We are heading out for the same goal, all of us," he said, stroking the black beard that now reached his chest. "We are not heading out to topple the regime. We are heading out to raise the banner 'There is no God but Allah.'
"If anyone is martyred, it is because God chose him," he said. "He only takes those whom He selects, the beloved of Allah."
Amid chants of "God is great!" they headed for the base. They stormed their assigned barracks and caught two government soldiers. They were questioned and "eliminated," said Akram, the former accountant.
By dawn, the rebels were clashing with soldiers in another barracks further in. Filfileh and 10 others came under fire and took cover behind a dirt mound. They lay on their chests, shooting at soldiers so close they could shout to them.
And shout they did. "Hey you dogs! Come have a cigarette!" Akram yelled, making his colleagues laugh. "Let me take you for a ride in my pickup!"
The base was falling, and the mood was buoyant. Just then, Filfileh told Akram to get him a rocket-propelled grenade.
When Akram returned, Filfileh was lying face up in the dirt, blood rushing from his forehead.
"Cover! We need cover!" Akram screamed into a walkie talkie. "Filfileh is wounded!"
The fighters carried Filfileh to a van, which raced to the Turkish border. Filfileh lay still on the floor, eyes open, with blood pooling under his head as fighters yelled his name.
At one point, he lifted his index finger in a sign of oath and mouthed the shehada: "There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet."
"He became a martyr next to me!" a fighter wailed. "Filfileh became a martyr!"
That night, the base fell.
The next night, the Beloved of Allah collected at the old farmhouse where they once hid from the army. The place had changed little, other than the new martyr photos on the wall.
The rebels had lost about 10 men in the battle, and Filfileh was badly wounded. But some 500 rebel fighters had routed the government soldiers, taken about 50 prisoners and made off with more booty than any could recall seeing in north Syria, including tanks, rocket launchers, armored vehicles, artillery guns and truckloads of munitions.
The survivors laughed when asked about their past or future lives.
"I try to ask myself where I'll be after the revolution and I can't imagine myself anywhere but in the grave," said Qadi, the veterinarian, who had planned to become a university professor before the uprising. "I've forgotten everything that came before."
Tallal invoked religion.
"If God permits, we could reach the presidential palace or we could all be martyred in the same battle," he said. "We depend only on Allah."
Filfileh was rushed to a hospital in Turkey, where surgeons stopped the bleeding from the bullet that had blown through his skull. Now he is conscious, can speak and says he will return to fight in Syria.
His doctor says he'll be released on Monday. Only time will tell if he'll walk without a cane.