Transformed from ragtag forces, they have attacked Syria's two largest cities
Outside Aleppo sits an arsenal of weapons seized from military forces
A flak jacket's original owner "God willing ... has gone to hell"
Editor’s Note: CNN’s Ivan Watson and crew are some of the few international reporters in Syria, whose government has been restricting access on foreign journalists and refusing many of them entry. Check out more from CNN inside Syria.
A distant machine gun rattled away in vain as a military helicopter flew long, slow circles, arcing from the contested Syrian city of Aleppo over to the rebel-controlled town of Anadan, six miles to the north.
A group of fighters stared and pointed from under the shelter of an overhanging building, until one man said in a worried tone, “Let’s go away” before hurrying indoors.
In a matter of months, Syria’s rebels have transformed themselves from ragtag village defense forces into an armed movement capable of attacking the country’s two largest cities, Aleppo and Damascus. They have also punctured the image of invincibility projected by Syrian army tanks and armored personnel carriers, as proven by the twisted wreckage of armored vehicles that now litter some roads.
But the fighters still find themselves vastly out-gunned when facing government air power.
And yet, even that advantage may be shrinking.
Hidden away in rebel safe houses in this artillery-scarred town is a small arsenal of heavy weapons captured from Syrian security forces.
Fighters proudly opened garage doors to reveal trucks mounted with an enormous 120 millimeter mortar and a anti-aircraft gun.
The weapons have seen action.
“I’ve fired this gun about 2,000 times,” said Jamal Awar, a bus driver-turned-rebel. He said that, during his mandatory military service, he specialized in firing the seated, double-barreled, anti-aircraft gun. Awar said that expertise helped him shoot down a helicopter during a battle in the nearby town of Azaz several weeks ago.
“I was ecstatic, I was very happy,” Awar said.
Rebels like Awar appeared to be the only residents in this otherwise deserted town. The streets were eerily empty.
Beside one main road lay the twisted wreckage of a small truck, reeking of rotting flesh. Fighters said three passengers inside were killed when Syrian troops targeted the vehicle from an outpost several kilometers outside of town.
During a visit by CNN journalists, bullets whizzed overhead as security forces took potshots at the group.
The daily artillery strikes and weeks without electricity have driven out almost all of the civilian population.
One of the few residents remaining was Ahmed Afash, leader of a squad of rebels who had taken up residence in the opulent mansion of a Syrian businessman.
Roughly half of his men were in nearby Aleppo, fighting to seize control of the city, he said.
Other fighters lounged on gilded furniture in the mansion’s main salon. Pistols and walkie-talkies lay next to an English coffee-table book and a French gossip magazine that appeared to have belonged to the house’s original owners.
Afash showed off an armory of seized weapons: a belt-fed grenade launcher, tank shells, rocket-propelled grenades and even several gas masks he said were for protection against chemical weapons. It was a bizarre juxtaposition, rpg cones laying in stacks next to dainty throw pillows and an ornately decorated telephone, which matched the gold leaf of the furniture in the room.
Asked about the original owner of a camouflage flak jacket, Afash said “He’s dead. God willing, he has gone to hell.”
Afash and his men may put many of these weapons into action in the coming days, as they expected to face a likely government counter-offensive in Aleppo.
“We will fight this dictator and all of his aircraft, tanks and rocket,” Afash said, as he worked with pliers to repair a malfunctioning gun bolt. “We started out this struggle with rocks.”