MAARET IKHWAN, Syria (AP) — Sixteen grunting rebel fighters dropped down for pushups in a rain-slick backyard, practiced storming a house from the cover of an olive grove, and then assembled for a refresher course on firing rocket-propelled grenades.
Their instructor, a former Syrian commando, said his young trainees still have a lot to learn, but that their drive to topple President Bashar Assad already makes them better soldiers than the regime's conscripts.
"Our faith in our cause outweighs our shortcomings," said the instructor, who defected from the Syrian army in February and gave his name only as Abu Hamza to protect his relatives against regime retribution. "Psychologically, they (rebel fighters) are stronger than the Syrian army."
Monday's training, in a rural area of Syria's largely rebel-controlled northwestern Idlib province, is part of a widening attempt to transform ragtag rebel groups into a disciplined fighting force.
Earlier this month, more than 500 commanders of rebel units, meeting in Turkey, elected what is to be a unified command, headed by a new chief of staff, defected Syrian army Gen. Salim Idries, and a 30-member group of senior officers.
Syria's opposition hopes the new military command will bring badly needed international support for the fighters. The West is unlikely to send weapons, for fear they will fall into the hands of Islamic militants among the rebels, but Syrian opposition leaders hope a unified command can become a conduit for logistical support.
For now, local rebel groups still operate with considerable autonomy, despite attempts in recent months to establish provincial military councils and cooperate more closely on a regional level.
Monday's training session was part of an attempt by the Idlib branch of the Tawheed (Unity) Brigade to improve the skills of its fighters. In Idlib province, the brigade is made up of seven battalions with about 900 armed men, said the instructor, Abu Hamza, once a special forces commander who served 12 years in the Syrian military.
Abu Hamza, 32, said that for the past month, he has been moving among rebel outposts to train the fighters. The tall, clean-shaven ex-officer said he hopes to pick the best for a future rebel commando unit.
For Monday's drill, 16 trainees faced Abu Hamza in four rows in the backyard of a farmhouse near the village of Maaret Ikhwan, about half an hour's drive from the Turkish border. Most were in their late teens or early 20s, dressed in an assortment of military fatigues, eagerly participating in Abu Hamza's morning warm-up despite a cold drizzle.
The group grunted in unison, punching fists in the air, then dropped down for pushups, shouting "God is great."
For a little extra excitement, Abu Hamza demonstrated how to break ceramic tiles with karate chops, explaining later that such routines, while not exactly needed in a civil war, were meant to boost confidence.
The group then moved into a nearby olive grove to practice storming a house. Taking cover behind the trees, the men slowly sneaked up on an empty building, banged on the door, waited a few seconds and then pretended to fire at the door.
Just months ago, most of the trainees had held ordinary jobs as farmers or laborers, and now appeared to be relishing the excitement and camaraderie of rebel life.
"This is better," 22-year-old Ahmed Najar said of being a rebel, when asked to compare his life now to his days as an aluminum worker. "This is jihad (holy war). This gets us into paradise."
Najar joined five months ago, saying he could not stand aside as the regime stepped up attacks on Syrian civilians.
The uprising against Assad began in March 2011, initially with peaceful protests, but became a full-fledged civil war in response to a violent crackdown by Assad's forces.
In recent months, as the rebels gained ground in Syria's countryside, Assad's air force has increasingly bombed rebel-held areas.
In recent days, there have been signs Assad may be losing his resolve to crush his opponents. On Monday, his vice president, Farouk al-Sharaa acknowledged that the army cannot defeat the rebels and called for negotiations.
Abu Hamza said that as a career soldier, he could not have imagined he would one day be asked to fire on unarmed Syrians. He said he got in trouble with his commanders when he refused to shoot at demonstrators, finally ending up in a military prison in January. He was released after two months, returned to his home province of Idlib and joined the rebels.
Now he is passing on what he learned in the military.
After the outdoor part of Monday's training, the group went into the farmhouse and, sitting on mattresses spread out on the floor, listened to Abu Hamza explain the intricacies of rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
He demonstrated how to hold the weapon while standing or prone, reminding his students to make sure there's no one behind them when firing because of the hot burst of gas that escapes the weapon as the rocket takes flight.
The RPG is effective against the Syrian army's smaller Soviet-made tanks, but not the newer models, he said.
One of the students, Ayman Abul Hashem, peppered Abu Hamza with questions. The 26-year-old farmer said he had made RPGs his specialty, fired them twice during a battle near the city of Idlib last week and wanted to get better at it.
Abu Hamza said the men in the unit are now 70 percent trained as soldiers. "For a fighter to be 100 percent needs a lot of work," he observed.
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