ALEPPO, Syria — For insurgents that are outgunned and lacking support, Syria's rebels are a consistently cheerful lot. It's not hard to see why: Here in the country's northern Aleppo province, they have largely driven Syrian troops out of the countryside, and are forcefully challenging President Bashar al-Assad's grip on the city of Aleppo.
The green, white, and black flag of the Syrian opposition flies at the Bab Salama border crossing with Turkey, which the rebels captured on July 22. A few weeks after it was taken, the Turkish government agreed to reopen the crossing as if the rebels were the recognized government. Even now, though, it is possible to walk through the border gates between Turkey and Syria, get your passport stamped by a grinning rebel at an immigration post, and hitch a ride south in the back of a truck. It may not be luxurious, but it is a far cry from the illegal and dangerous hike across the Turkish frontier that many reporters and activists were previously forced to take to enter Syria.
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Syrian rebels have largely cleared regime troops from the area between the Turkish border and Aleppo, the country's economic hub and largest city. Abdul Nasser al-Khatib, a rebel commander in the newly formed al-Tawhid ("Unity") Brigade, an organization of rebel groups around Aleppo, claimed that opposition forces hold an approximately 125- by 25-mile area in the north.
"We have made our buffer zone," said Khatib, a burly former interior decorator. Roads snaking through the rich, dark brown farmland of northern Syria are devoid of regime checkpoints. There are even a few Free Syrian Army (FSA) checkpoints. Free from a threat in the countryside, the rebels have moved almost all their fighters to the city of Aleppo, where battles are still raging.
Al-Tawhid, which consists of about 8,000 fighters, was formed in July, before rebel forces entered Aleppo. It is an umbrella brigade for all the different battalions that have driven regime forces from the towns and villages of the Aleppo countryside and have come to fight in the city. While it is the main force in the area at the moment, Khatib said that the group would not continue after the fall of the regime and would do its best to help foster civil structures. The brigade is dominated by conservative Muslims -- not unusual for a force from the rural countryside -- but Khatib maintained that Islamist extremists would have no power in the future Syria.
"It is good for Aleppo," said an activist named Yasser Haji, speaking about al-Tawhid. But he laments that the rebels haven't organized and created other alternative structures beyond the regime anywhere near fast enough. "We have been too slow," he said.
Freedom is in the air. But the Assad regime still possesses tools to terrorize residents and thwart the rebels' designs: Calm countryside mornings are shattered by the afternoon, as airplanes and shelling strike towns and villages in attacks that continue throughout the night. For the rebels, it is impossible to feel fully liberated -- or confident about their success -- when death could come from above at any moment.
"[W]hat we need is not a buffer zone. We need a no-fly zone," Khatib told me. "Without a no-fly zone we will be finished."
I experienced this only too closely on Aug. 15 in the city of Aleppo, when I accompanied a group of rebel fighters on a mission to help take back a captured roundabout from regime forces.
Earlier in the day, regime troops and tanks had emerged from a military base just outside of Aleppo -- one of the regime's last strongholds in the countryside. Most of the time, the soldiers stayed inside the base and were resupplied by helicopter. But on Aug. 15, they attacked the rebels at a roundabout along the road ringing the city, in the suburb of al-Jandou, and took control of it.