Syrian Rebels Plan Free Election

In Aleppo province of northern Syria, rebel leaders are planning the first "free" election outside government control — imperfect as it may be. For the first time, towns and villages across the province will come together in each place and decide who will represent them. Rima Marrouch contributed to this report.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Some Syrians - now in the midst of a civil war - are about to take a step toward governing themselves.

INSKEEP: In recent days, Syrian rebels captured an air base near the capital. Government jets continue flying from other bases.

MONTAGNE: Today, Syrian bombs struck an olive press near the border with Turkey, killing or wounding dozens of people. Earlier this week, an airstrike hit a playground, killing at least 10 children.

INSKEEP: So the war seems far from over, yet civilians in one Syrian province are planning a dramatic gesture - their first free election outside of government control. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Gaziantep, Turkey, near the Syrian border.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Cross the border into Syria's northern province of Aleppo, and the change is striking.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTOR)

AMOS: This town had been bombed over the summer, and many of the people left. Now they're back, and the town is coming back to life.

In the town of Azaz, restaurants are open; repair shops are busy. We see young women going to school, walking back home after class is over. But the most telling change is political, as these messages show - posted on every street light. There are revolutionary signs calling on people to work together, and to have no leaders that they bow down to.

After 40 years of rule by one family and one party, Syrians want to choose their leader, says Dr. Jalal Eddine Khangi.

DR. JALAL EDDINE KHANGI: (Through translator) And that is why we want to try to represent, truly, the people on the ground and - to be democratic.

AMOS: Khangi heads Aleppo's Transitional Revolutionary Council, formed this summer. It brought together the city's opposition groups battling to bring down the regime of President Bashar al-Assad: activists, dissidents, the business community and armed groups.

Khangi - an academic, and a former political prisoner - says it's time to take a bigger step. He's backing the preparation for a province-wide council, that will eventually elect the new leaders of Aleppo city and provincial towns and villages.

How easy is it to vote, when these places are all under shelling and bombing?

KHANGI: (Through translator) It's true - it's not safe; the shelling did not stop. But people want true representation.

AMOS: The election, he says, will take place over the next two weeks. And each town and village must find a safe way to hold a vote. But it's not the only problem, says this businessman from Aleppo.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Those people are not used to elect, not used to have a democracy, a real democracy.

AMOS: He doesn't want his name broadcast, to protect his family in the city. But he says many people in Aleppo support the transitional council and the vote.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All of us are helping the - in our knowledge, to achieve such government.

AMOS: Are you worried what will happen between the civilians and the armed groups?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes, I am worried. If the problem - finished soon, I'm not worried. Everything will be solved.

AMOS: But that's a big "if." The fighting could go on for months. The Assad regime has mounted a ferocious military campaign to dislodge the rebels. Neither side can afford to lose. Now, the momentum is with the rebels, say military analysts. Aleppo's civil society is trying to build a government for when the fighting ends.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Gaziantep, Turkey.

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