There have been a number of articles recently about "fragmentation" of the insurgency's command in Syria. Charles Levinson's report for the Wall Street Journal is distinctive, however, because it links this to an account of the insurgency's progress through the Aleppo countryside this summer and its initial "surprise" attack on Syria's largest city on 19 July:
Abdel Jabbar al-Ughaidy, a defected Syrian army colonel, is trying to command the loyalty of rebel ranks around Aleppo. So is Abdel Aziz Salama, a former honey merchant.
The two men, at once allies and rivals, capture the challenges facing Syria's insurgents as they struggle to cobble together a cohesive fighting force and topple President Bashar al-Assad.
Rebels in the northern province of Aleppo joined the uprising late but have proved more adept than those elsewhere in Syria. They have driven government forces out of the countryside north of Syria's largest city and seized a major swath of the city itself.
But destabilizing rifts threaten the effort — stoking fights over ideology, weapons and political influence. The rifts partly explain a stall in the rebels' momentum to capture Aleppo, which was the scene of a lethal car bombing Sunday. The splits also offer a glimpse into the nascent political forces that would vie for power in a post-Assad Syria.
How these differences shake out in coming days could determine which side prevails in the 18-month conflict and lay the groundwork for either cooperation or fresh rounds of internecine bloodletting if Mr. Assad falls.
Mr. Salama, a top commander of Islamic-tinged, rural-led fighters called the Tawhid Division, rules from the basement of a cinder-block compound in the small farming village of Tel Refaat deep in the hinterland. He sits at a wobbly desk and has a half-dozen rickety metal chairs and scattered floor mattresses for visitors.
Mr. Salama was a teenager during a government crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1980s, when many of his relatives and fellow villagers either fled into exile or vanished into prisons never to return. A pious country conservative who is very much in the Muslim Brotherhood mold, but says he isn't a member, Mr. Salama recently scolded a Western filmmaker for letting her scarf slip and reveal a tuft of blond hair.
His rival, Col. Ughaidy, operates out of a sprawling villa in the fertile flats northwest of Aleppo. He meets with subordinates poolside, as he did on a recent day while an aide dutifully fastened shoulder boards to his uniform. The former officer in Mr. Assad's military, who has the backing of Aleppo's urban elite and of well-heeled exiles, is dismissive of the rural commanders' Islamist-fueled politics.
Col. Ughaidy and Mr. Salama have a tense yet mutually dependent relationship. Each claims to be the rightful commander of the rebel fight in the province. Col. Ughaidy, thanks to his international support, controls most of the arms and ammunition coming in across the Turkish border. But the homegrown Mr. Salama commands far more loyalty in the ranks.
Syria's uprising shifted from protests to full-fledged armed struggle in the first half of 2012. A group of influential Aleppans that included affluent businessmen, young activists and well-connected exiles then joined in a search for leaders to take charge of the fight. In April, they took their quest to Gaziantep, a Turkish village that hosts a refugee camp for former Syrian officers.
The Aleppans had seen the mistakes of rebels elsewhere in Syria. In nearby Idlib province, they concluded the rebel effort had derailed because its leaders operated from the refugee camps and never mustered the requisite popular support or on-the-ground feel for the battle's dynamics.
In picking leaders, "we had three conditions: You had to be a military officer, you had to be from Aleppo, and you had to lead from the ground inside Syria," says Adnan Abu Fares, a former HSBC investment banker who is close to one of the wealthy Aleppan businessmen bankrolling the rebel effort.
As for rural commanders such as Mr. Salama, Mr. Abu Fares said, "The people like them, and we need them, but they are not qualified to lead at this stage. You need somebody the international community is willing to work with and somebody with enough military experience to plan the next stage."
Eleven former officers of the Syrian army agreed to join what was dubbed the Aleppo Military Council and relocate back to Syria from camps in Turkey.
The council gave Col. Ughaidy the top spot. A gray-haired, portly native of a village south of Aleppo, he says he long harbored a quiet disgust for the Assad regime but served it loyally for decades, defecting only in March.
The Military Council announced its formation in early June. Promising fresh arms and supplies, it secured nominal pledges of loyalty from many of the rebel fighting groups.
But the Military Council came late to the game. The battle for the Aleppan countryside had been building since early spring. Village fighters had grown in numbers and combat know-how. Homegrown leaders emerged in their ranks.
By July, as the Military Council watched mostly from the sidelines, the battle for the north of Syria was nearing a climax.