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Abdelbasset Sarout, Syria Soccer Star, Turns Rebel As Violence Destroys Country

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By Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Khaled Yacoub Oweis

ANTAKYA/AMMAN, Aug 1 (Reuters) - Syrian football star Abdelbasset Sarout gained a new kind of fame when the popular uprising against Bashar al-Assad erupted, chanting songs at rallies that eulogised slain protesters and vilified the president.

"What's wrong with Bashar, killing his people to hang on to a (presidential) chair? Shame on you. How will the wounds of this nation heal?" went one song by the 20-year-old athlete who became a symbol of what began as a non-violent protest movement.

Nearly 17 months on, Sarout has changed, mirroring how the revolt has evolved into an armed struggle seen as a desperate fight to the finish as much by Assad and his narrowing power base as by the inchoate guerrilla bands spawned by the conflict.

Sarout comes from Homs, a city where Assad's tanks and troops have devastated Sunni Muslim districts sympathetic to rebels, whose ranks the soft-spoken goalkeeper has now joined.

He is just one of tens of thousands of Syrians from all walks of life to take up arms after it became clear that violence, along with paper reforms dictated from above, was the ruling system's blunt response to peaceful demands for change.

"The brigades across Syria are the same people who went out demonstrating peacefully at the start of the revolution, have been shot at and were forced to switch from carrying banners to carrying weapons," said Ahmad Zeidan, a opposition activist working on streamlining the anti-Assad insurgency.

Many fighters come from obscure Sunni Muslim towns like Atma, Mayadeen, Busra al-Harir and Taftanaz in Syria's poverty-stricken countryside which had long seen their sons conscripted into an army dominated by Assad's minority Alawite sect.

They also watched resentfully as privileged Alawites and Sunni merchant families co-opted during five decades of repressive Baathist rule grew rich and, in the 12 years since Assad replaced his father, increasingly flaunted their wealth.

The longstanding alliance between Assad and some sections of Syria's 70 percent Sunni majority is now disintegrating. Like Sarout, many urban Sunnis have also joined the insurgency.


FRACTURED OPPOSITION

In July, video footage showed the footballer carrying a rocket launcher and marching with rebels in the Khalidiya neighbourhood of Homs, pummelled by army shelling for months.

"We are finished with the peaceful era," the slim sportsman with a light moustache shouts in barely controlled anger.

"Khalidiya is liberated territory because we are not former army officers and we didn't go to Turkey, leaving others to fight. Look around, there is no Riad al-Asaad, no renegade officers. Those sitting abroad are not worth a halfpenny."

Sarout was deriding senior Syrian army officers who have defected and mostly fled to Turkey and who are struggling to form a unified leadership for fighters on the ground.

One such officer, Colonel Riad al-Asaad, formed the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) in August, but his Turkish-based commanders appear to have few operational links with most of the myriad armed brigades that have sprung up across the country.

Inside Syria, cooperation between rebels and civilian coordination committees known as Tansiqiyat is sketchy. The fighters' ties with the Syrian National Council (SNC), an opposition umbrella group in exile, are even more tenuous.

Disunity among Assad's opponents and uncertainty about their aims has deterred international support for the revolt against a leader who still commands support among his Shi'ite-rooted Alawites and some Sunnis. Christians and other minorities have mostly tried to stay aloof from the conflict, in which activists say at least 18,000 people have been killed.

In a new effort to fill the political vacuum, veteran dissidents with close links to rebels formed a new alliance on Monday called the Council for the Syrian Revolution.

Asaad, the FSA chief, swiftly denounced the council's plan to establish a transitional government, including the FSA, as the work of self-interested opportunists who want to "ride over our revolution and trade with the blood of our martyrs".

CHEQUERED RESISTANCE

The plan also drew a cool response from the SNC, but the real test for the new group may be whether it can command the support of the disparate insurgents fighting to topple Assad.

"It is time to realise that the revolt is tied to military success on ground and that we would not be where we are now without the rebels," said Sheikh Louay al-Zughbi, a council member from the southern city of Deraa, cradle of the uprising.

"We will chart a strategy that puts armed resistance at the heart of opposition work."

The council includes figures such as Ahmad Tirkawi, a strategist in the rebel struggle in Homs, Hamdo Qirawan, a merchant from the northwestern province of Idlib and tribal leader Nawaf al-Bashir from the eastern province of Deir al-Zor.

The rebel movement is fragmented partly because pervasive army roadblocks and other nationwide controls have made it hard to form large brigades under a unified command.

Army defectors also remain a minority among rebel fighters across Syria, opposition sources say.

An exception to these generalities is the town of Rastan, situated on a rugged hill 30 kms (19 miles) north of Homs and traditionally a reservoir of Sunni army recruits.

Rastan's "Hawks Company for Special Operations", a unit comprised mostly of defectors, is credited by opposition sources with last month's bombing that killed four of Assad's top lieutenants, including his brother-in-law Asef Shawkat, in the heavily guarded Damascus district of Abu Rummaneh.

The opposition sources say most rebel bands are locally organised, with 100 to 150 fighters each, most with weapons training from their days as conscripts, and often receive support from Syrian expatriates hailing from the same region.

The formidable Khaled Ibn al-Walid battalion, named after a 7th century warrior who conquered Syria for Islam, comprises young men with tribal background in Homs and is financed by Syrians from the same clans working in the Gulf.

"You will not find a tribe's son in Homs who does not know how to handle an AK-47 assault rifle," said platoon leader Abu Mohammad in the Turkish city of Antakya, where he had come for treatment after a bullet ricocheted off a wall and hit his eye.

He recalls an attack early in the revolt on a bus carrying feared pro-Assad militiamen, known as shabbiha, outside Homs.

"It had posters of Assad and (Lebanese Hezbollah leader) Hassan Nasrallah plastered on it. The posters gave me motivation as we intercepted the bus by car," Abu Mohammed said.

Abu Abdallah, another fighter in the battalion, said he was a merchant and became a rebel after coming to Homs from abroad last year only to be detained for two weeks in an Airforce Intelligence facility "because I was young and Sunni".

"One day they brought a woman they had arrested to a room next to my cell and gang raped her all night. Her screams still wake me from sleep," said the wiry combatant, deeply sun-burned from months of fighting in the open.

Abu Mohammad and Abu Abdallah, who go by their noms de guerre, brushed off questions about the reported presence of al Qaeda sympathisers in rebel ranks, saying the conflict was to overthrow Assad and end the cruelties of Alawite "tyranny".

"Slitting the throats of women and children is not part of our culture," Abu Abdallah said, referring to reported killings by Shabbiha militiamen. Human rights groups say rebels have also committed grave abuses during the conflict.


MONEY TRAIL

Opposition figures close to rebels say nimble, relatively small battalions such as Khaled Ibn al-Walid are more effective than larger units that are prone to political feuding.

Caught off guard by the pace of militarisation of the revolt, opposition groups in exile have sought to retain influence by channelling money to various rebel groups.

The Muslim Brotherhood is helping finance the al-Farouk brigade in Homs, which has several thousand members and is, on paper, one of the largest rebel units, opposition sources say.

A core group of fighters who originally formed the brigade left Homs after an internal dispute and went to Damascus to organise armed resistance there. The cell was wiped out three months ago in an army raid on its hideout in the al-Midan district, opposition figures in contact with rebels said.

In Aleppo, where Assad's forces are trying to retake swathes of the city seized by rebels, 3,000 to 6,000 fighters have joined forces loosely under the banner of the al-Tawheed Brigade, which controls much of the surrounding countryside.

Another effort to unite rebels is under way in Khan Sheikhoun, further south on the Damascus highway, where Colonel Khaled Qutaimi, an army defector from the Aleppo Northern Command, has set up the Shield battalion, some 2,000 strong.

"Without leadership, it's like a body without a head," Qutaimi said of the armed struggle against Assad. "Every head of a brigade acts independently, but there is cooperation."

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