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A peek at 'liberated territory' in northern Syria

By Ivan Watson and Joe Sterling, CNN
updated 10:11 AM EST, Thu February 16, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A lot of the northern Syrian region is in open revolt
  • There are experiments in self-rule
  • The Free Syrian Army has a presence
  • Citizens anticipate an offensive by Syrian security forces

Northern Syria (CNN) -- Staunch anti-government ferment is making its way across turbulent Syria, as pockets of resistance have popped up in towns, villages and neighborhoods nationwide over the last 11 months.

One example is the northern countryside in places like Idlib province, much of which is starting to emerge as an opposition bastion.

Residents say swaths of the territory are in open revolt. They call many of the communities dotting the region "liberated territory" and are starting to experiment with self-rule.

This is heartening news for the opposition Syrian National Council and the military defectors across the nation who battle the military under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, both of whom are trying to gain traction in their fight against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

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One of the challenges for the Syrian freedom fighters has been the lack of a liberated territory -- like Benghazi was in Libya. That city was the capital of the Libyan resistance. Its leaders and NATO spearheaded the successful fight against dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Syrian opposition forces point to the need for a Syrian-style Benghazi and they say the creation of an autonomous power base and safe haven would be a major stride in their fight as well.

CNN journalists have traveled to villages and towns in the north and witnessed the anti-government ferment.

People gather in town councils to settle their affairs outside of the shadow of the al-Assad government, some brandishing firearms they've obtained in recent months.

A cross-section of people -- young and old, farmers, carpenters and teachers -- say the villages in the region have been out of government control for several months except when government forces try to stage deadly incursions. Residents displayed cell phone photos of neighbors and relatives killed in some of the raids.

Hundreds of defectors who've joined the Free Syrian Army battle the government forces across the region, including the city of Idlib -- where the government flag flies in the center of town and the rebel flag is hoisted less than a mile away.

Their fierce battles at various locations have resulted in daily deaths and injuries.

Fighters are preparing for the possibility of a Syrian military offensive and are trying to defend their towns by ringing them with improvised explosive devices and land mines, residents say.

So far, opposition fighters have not had the armor, air power and other vast resources of the Syrian government. But northern residents believe that the stretched Syrian military is focusing its fight on larger cities and won't have all of the resources it needs to pacify the region.

CNN's Joe Sterling contributed from Atlanta and CNN's Ivan Watson and Kareem Khadder contributed from Syria.

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