Syrian Rebels Make Significant Military, Political Gains

Over the past several days, rebels in Syria have captured a city of more than a million people in one northern province. It the first time rebels captured a provincial capital. The rebels also have taken a step toward setting up a rebel government in another northern province.

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Rebels in Syria have made significant military and political gains this week. They captured a provincial capital and are holding the first free election for a civilian council in another area. Rebels drove the Syrian army from most of the city of Raqqa and arrested the governor, according to activists and videos posted online. And in Aleppo, although fighting President Bashar al-Assad's regime still controls part of the city, a newly elected council will run civilian affairs.

NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Gaziantep, Turkey.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Hundreds of Syrians stood for their national anthem in the safety of this southern Turkish border town. They know this meeting would be just one more target if it were held inside Syria, under constant air and missile strikes. So election organizers opted to move the vote right across the border.

These 225 delegates from rebel-held areas elected a city and provincial council on Monday, a first step to restore a government in Syria's largest city. They'll go back to Aleppo this week to start work.

Zafer Nahas, a young activist, says just holding the vote was a victory.

ZAFER NAHAS: Starting from me, ending with every guy, this is a huge step. It's the first time that all people meet together. This can give us hope. I mean, every one is winning, as I see it.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD SINGING)

AMOS: They chanted into the night "Falling, Falling Ya Bashar," the anthem of the protest movement. The room was filled with activists and civilian leaders. Top rebel commander were here, too.

As rebels have widened control in Aleppo, the opposition has organized groups that run hospitals, courts, and aid distribution to keep the city going. Those who came to observe the vote hope these elected councils can provide a more formal structure, and somehow from somewhere, get the cash to build the services for the city, says Khalil Agha. He's trying to organize a police department.

KHALIL AGHA: We need uniforms. We need cars.

AMOS: How many policemen do you have ready to go in Aleppo?

AGHA: Till now, we have about 30 centers and 1,000 policemen.

AMOS: So far, police salaries have been funded by the Qatar government. But the newly elected council is starting off with no guaranteed financial support.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD SINGING)

AMOS: In a speech here, Moaz al Khatib, president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, recognized internationally, downplayed expectations. He hedged on channeling American aid to the Aleppo. Last week, the U.S. pledged $60 million to support local government.

Money matters, says Zafer Nahas, for this council to compete with well-funded ultra conservative Islamist groups that are also providing services.

NAHAS: Now, they hold some aid. They hold this flour. They hold the gas. And they hold some schools. And they're doing well. They're doing well.

AMOS: Jabhat al Nusra, an armed Islamist group, is one of those groups doing well through its aid operation, says Nahas. Jabhat took no part in these elections. They say they are against democracy. They want an Islamist state in Syria. The group was named a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.

NAHAS: We cannot fight al Jabhat with arms. We can fight them by us being civil people, being stronger. So when we are stronger, now this is the real fight, not the fight on the ground with guns.

AMOS: The hope here is these civilian councils can meet the basic needs of the city and earn the trust of a population that has lived for decades with the corruption of the Assad regime.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

AMOS: A panel of Syrian judges and lawyers counted paper ballots and read out the votes in front of an audience of candidates. Even the plastic ballot boxes were transparent.

MOHAMMED GHANEM: I am Mohammed Ghanem with the Syrian American Council. I'm a monitor here.

AMOS: Ghanem was invited by the election committee to monitor every step of the vote. He says it's a chance to prove the power of the ballot over the gun.

GHANEM: But it's going to take time. And I think, unless we support these civilian efforts, parts of Syria will be dominated by warlords. Yes.

AMOS: This is the first step toward democracy in Syria. But many here say there won't be a second step if they don't get the financial help to rebuild Aleppo.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Gaziantep.

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