DAMASCUS - Frustrated at divisions and mistrust among opposition groups, Islamist fighters are joining forces to topple the Syrian regime of President Bashar Al-Assad.
"We have more than 40,000 fighters now and the numbers are growing because more brigades are expressing interest in joining," Ahmad al-Sheikh, the leader of a new front grouping Islamist groups, told Reuters on Thursday, October 11.
After more than a month of secret meetings, leaders of several Islamist brigades formed a front to topple the Assad's regime.
Among members in the Front to Liberate Syria are the Farooq Brigade, which operates in Homs province, and the heavyweight Sukour al-Sham (Hawks of the Levant) brigade of Idlib.
"We have gathered to unite the military work and we also have other agendas, Sheikh, who is known to his fighters as Abu Eissa, said.
We want to build the state of justice and give rights to its people after 40 years of oppression."
Opposition sources said efforts were continuing to recruit new members, including Ahrar al-Sham, which pulled out in protest at the killing of a Salafi leader by a rival force.
Since its formation, the front's fighters have been focused on attacking checkpoints as part of their attempt to push Assad's forces out of towns.
On Tuesday fighters from the Sukour al-Sham seized the town of Maarat al Nuaman in Idlib province from government forces.
More than 27,000 people have been killed in Syria's 18-month-old uprising against Assad's regime.
The revolt against Assad began as peaceful protests calling for democracy and greater rights, but gradually turned to an armed struggle, pitting the Sunni majority against the president and his minority Alawite sect.
A lack of vision over how to topple Assad and divisions among opposition leaders encouraged more Syrians to take up arms.
But splits soon surfaced among fighters, mirroring the disintegration among political opposition leaders.
The group was originally called the Islamic Front to Liberate Syria, but the world Islamic was dropped by its leaders.
"We are proud of our Islamism and we are Islamists, Abu Eissa, who is also the head of the Sukour al-Sham Brigades, told Reuters.
But we do not want to show it in a slogan because we might not live up to the responsibility of Islam.
"But we want a state with Islamic reference and we are calling for it."
He said brigades in Damascus, Deir al-Zor, Aleppo, Idlib and Homs provinces have joined the front and logistical offices have been opened across Syria to facilitate coordination.
Abu Eissa insists that all the Front's fighters were Syrian and none of the foreigners who have come to Syria will be allowed to join.
"We do not want anyone from outside, so that the revolution is not exploited and is not serving the agendas of others," he said.
Their weapons are seized from attacks on Syrian army posts and some arms dealers inside and outside Syria, he said.
Some European countries had promised they would soon recognize the front, he added.
But the new front was criticized by the umbrella opposition group, the Free Syrian Army, which is concerned that the emphasis on Islamic identity would worry minorities in Syria.
Some fighters also said the group receives funding from Gulf states which promote the same ideology - a reference to Saudi Arabia and Qatar - and also has better access to weapons coming through Turkey.
They accused them of denying some of those arms to fighters from smaller groups fighting alongside them.
"We are fighting and getting killed but some do not even bother helping us, said a fighter in a brigade composed of less than 500 fighters.
They just watch us as if we are not on the same front.
Many opposition leaders have been angry with the FSA head, over residing in Turkey, saying it stripped him of any legitimacy among fighters who were dying inside the country.
The belated move by Riad al-Asaad back into Syria last month has done little to change their stance.
"We are tired of paper tigers outside the country who have no link to the battlefield," said Abu Eissa, whose 16-year-old eldest son was killed in fighting in Idlib six months ago.
Abu Eissa, however, insists that the new front would maintain "brotherly relations" with all groups but fell short of offering support.
"Whoever wants to work with us is a brother and a son of the front and whoever wants to work under other wings in the interest of the revolution is also a brother for us, he told Reuters.But the others who are in the camps (in Turkey), they do not have any acceptance among us."