A number of Syrian rebel commanders I met in Idlib and Aleppo denied outright the presence of foreign fighters in the country. "We can defend ourselves. There is no need for foreigners here," said Abu Azzam, an army captain who defected a month ago and now heads a brigade in the town of al-Bab in Aleppo province. Ayman, a prominent opposition figure in Idlib who did not wish to have his full name published, was more positive. "We are all brothers in Islam, and brothers help brothers," he said. "We welcome foreigners if they are good people we can work with, like those in Liwa al-Ummah. The problem is there are good and bad people coming."
Najjair grumbles about the Assad regime's attempts to portray fighters of other nationalities like him as extremists linked to al Qaeda. "This is not an al Qaeda jihad," he says. "This is a people's revolution, and we want to help."
Syrians in Liwa al-Ummah say they were drawn to it because it is well organized and disciplined compared with many other brigades. Harati is selective about whom he allows to join. "Sheikh Mahdi knows what he is doing," says one man. "He has experience." Several mention what another man describes as the brigade's "Islamic frame of reference."
The Facebook page for Liwa al-Ummah is a mix of battle updates, photographs of training sessions, and grainy footage of operations (one of which was dubbed "the Libyan ambassador," a reference to the brigade's Libyan contingent). It also includes a video clip of the late Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian religious scholar who provided the theological underpinning for the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, outlining when jihad becomes fard ayn, meaning an individual duty. A message bylined by Harati contains an invitation to "join the jihad in the land of al-Sham."
The Facebook page also includes a mission statement of sorts, outlining the brigade's principles and goals. The goals include defending the ummah and liberating it from dictatorship and aggression; cooperating to establish Islamic governance (though no detail is given as to what this might entail); and working to unite the ummah and bring about its "renaissance" (the Arabic word they use is ennahda, the name of the Islamist ruling party in Tunisia).
It was these objectives that appealed to Mohammed al-Sukni, a 28-year-old engineer who serves as Liwa al-Ummah's commander in Homs, the restive city in central Syria. "I joined because I liked the central idea of the ummah and raising the banner of Islam," he says. "I would like to see Syria with a moderate Islamic government -- something like Tunisia or Turkey. Liwa al-Ummah is different from the other brigades in that it is not just fighting the regime, but it is also preparing for after the war. I think it will play a pivotal role now and in the future."
This is echoed by Hassan Barakat, who recently brought his group of 150 rebel fighters in Maaret al-Numan, a town on the Damascus-Aleppo highway, under the auspices of Liwa al-Ummah. "The idea of the ummah, of Muslims cooperating together, is uplifting," he says. "It gives us a sense of dignity."
One night after iftar, the meal that breaks the Ramadan fast, I am introduced to Abdelmajid al-Khatib, an unassuming pharmacist from the Jabal al-Zawiya area of Idlib province who acts as Liwa al-Ummah's political organizer.
"Our plan is to transform into a political party to accomplish the goals of Liwa al-Ummah," he says. "We want to be part of any transitional government. The end of the regime is close, so it is necessary for us to get organized politically to ensure that such a government is not created from the outside but from here inside Syria."
He says the group already has representatives in "most areas" of Syria. "We are opening offices in different parts of the country that are under the control of the thuwar. We are also refining our political ideology; we envisage a party that will accept all factions, religions, and sects in Syria including Alawites, but with an Islamic frame of reference," he says.
Khatib divides his time between Syria and Turkey, where he shuttles between Istanbul and Antakya, the city close to the border that has become a hub for the Syrian rebels, to coordinate with sympathizers. "We're putting the word out and gathering popular support for the political battle ahead," he says.
From its uniforms -- all purchased by Harati in Turkey -- to its arsenal, Liwa al-Ummah appears well funded compared with many other rebel brigades. The arms at its disposal include 12.5 mm and 14.5 mm anti-aircraft guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and rifles including PKCs and M16s. Harati says the brigade has access to "new and improved" weaponry now that rebel forces control several border posts along the frontier with Turkey. But as he is quick to point out, "It's still a very unbalanced war." Like other Syrian rebel factions, the brigade is also developing expertise to produce improvised explosive devices to target Assad's forces.
Harati says Liwa al-Ummah draws on a network of private donors in Syria and across the Middle East and North Africa for financing. Its Facebook page features several expressions of gratitude to named benefactors in Kuwait. "These are individual people who feel very strongly about the slaughter happening in Syria," says Harati. On one point, he is especially adamant: "We receive no money from any governments."
Last month, rumors claiming Harati had been killed fighting in Idlib swept media in Syria and Libya. The men of Liwa al-Ummah blame the Assad regime for circulating the bogus story. Harati shrugs it off. "We expect this kind of thing from the regime. It's another form of warfare."
The Libyans in the brigade often debate with their Syrian counterparts the differences between the Syrian uprising and the revolution in their own country. "In Libya our revolution was unified under the banner of the National Transitional Council and its head, Mustafa Abdel Jalil," says Harati. "Here there is no face that represents all the branches of the Syrian revolt." Najjair, his brother-in-law, agrees. "There are so many different factions, objectives, and ideologies." Harati nods before sighing: "The complexity of the situation here makes me feel like we were just playing games in Libya last year."