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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

NPR's Kelly McEvers recently crossed into Syria in secret. She spent a night with the Free Syrian Army, soldiers who defected and then assembled a force that's been launching attacks on government targets.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Yeah, so we're on this little dirt road. We're about to hop on the back of a motorcycle. We've been dropped off by one contact; now we're going with another one. Two of us getting on the back of this bike. It's cold, it's dark, and we are crossing the border.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE)

MCEVERS: The Free Syrian Army doesn't hold any territory. It's not like in Libya, where rebels fighting to bring down their dictator controlled a swath of the country. Instead, what the Syrian rebels have is a kind of underground railroad, a series of safe houses in Lebanon that lead to smuggling paths that lead to more safe houses inside Syria. The idea of this underground railroad is that guns - and sometimes reporters - can come into the country while wounded rebels can go out. Once we're inside Syria, we meet the rebels who handle this in and out traffic. What happened there? They put us in a car that looks like it's been through hell. Rebels point their guns out of windows that no longer exist.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Lookouts positioned along the road give hand signals that it's safe to pass. And we are driving on some sort of paved and unpaved roads, driving through mainly farms with three guys who have AK-47s. They are all, you know, wearing green khaki-type jackets and, you know, head scarves tied around their hair. They've got beards. They're psyched, you know, they're clearly like pumped with adrenaline. The rebels show us a spot where they say two bodies were dumped just a few days before. They say the dead men were soldiers just like them who'd refused orders to fire on protestors and who tried to defect from the army. Our final stop is a shack in the middle of an apple orchard. It's a little tiny farmhouse, concrete floor, heater in the middle, you know, water bottles, clothes hanging all over the place. Clearly, people sleep here - jeans, scarves.

The Free Syrian Army first emerged this summer when a defected colonel, who claims to be their leader, released a statement on YouTube. The group now says it has thousands of soldiers inside Syria and varying levels of support in neighboring countries, like Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. Last month, the group launched its most daring operation when it attacked the feared Air Force Intelligence Agency just outside Syria's capital. The farmhouse fills up with more men. The newcomers say they are captains in the Free Syrian Army. They say attacks like the Air Force Intelligence job are still rare, but they smile when we say the name Che Guevara.

AL ALI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Captain Al Ali says the group is hoping for international intervention - ideally a no-fly zone over Syria. Even though Syrian troops don't actually attack protestors from the air, he says a no-fly zone would encourage more soldiers - and more officers - to defect.

ALI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: If we have a no-fly zone, brags Captain Al Ali, the regime will fall within days. The question is how. At the hands of this ragtag group of rebels or would it be some kind of coup, where high-ranking officers still inside the army force the Syrian president and his cronies to leave? The captains say they haven't thought that far ahead. Diplomats and analysts here in the region say a coup is the least violent option, especially as this conflict turns more bloody and more sectarian. The majority of the protestors and the Free Syrian Army are Sunnis. The regime is Alawite, a sect affiliated with Shiites.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Back in the car and on our way out of Syria, the rebels talk about drinking the blood of those who've jailed and killed their friends. They show us where just the day before they shot at Alawite thugs known as shabiha. The word literally means ghosts. We'd love to stop and show you this land, one rebel says; we'd love to turn on the lights and let you see how beautiful it is, but not until it's our land, he says. Not until it's free.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

MCEVERS: Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

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