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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

In Syria, government forces are calling in reinforcements and hitting rebels hard as they battle for control in two important cities: Aleppo, the economic heart of the country, and Damascus, the capital.

NPR's Kelly McEvers spent last week with the anti-government rebels known as the Free Syrian Army, getting a sense of the impact their efforts are having in other parts of Syria.

In the third part of her series about the trip, she begins her story in a small village tucked in the olive groves and rocky hills of northern Syria.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: This is the town of Qurqanya. It doesn't sound like much, because it isn't much. Scratch the surface, though, and you realize that this is a hub for the revolution up here in northern Syria. It's here that a kind of shadow state is forming.

As the Syrian state recedes, the people in this village and villages around it are filling in the blanks with their own institutions and, for better or for worse, their own ideas about how a country should be run.

The rebels started taking control of these villages and towns a few months back, just as the Syrian army began focusing on holding major cities. The first thing the rebels do is take over the post office or the police station and set up shop as the local authority.

Each village or town has something different to offer the rebels. Here, it's a school that during the summer break is used as a kind of media center, with a few laptops and an Internet connection. In the next town over, it's a hospital.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: The head doctor says he might treat dozens of injured rebel fighters from all around this region in a single day. Places that treat rebels used to be totally underground, makeshift MASH units set up in rooms of people's houses. In many parts of Syria, it is still like this. But more and more, the rebels are coming out into the open and asserting their control.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK ENGINE)

MCEVERS: I'm in a truck, riding with the rebels of the Free Syrian Army. And we are doing something that just a month ago, maybe two months ago, was totally unheard of. We're driving on a highway. We are freely just, in the middle of the day, driving down a highway.

In fact, we just went through a checkpoint, but it wasn't a government checkpoint. It was a Free Syrian Army checkpoint. They saw who we were. We're a pickup truck with, you know, guys with guns in the back. They waved us through.

Driving into the next town, the town marker has been painted with the rebel flag. Once we're in town, we can tell what that means. There's no sign of the Syrian state anywhere.

This is like a major town, and the whole place is, you know, pro-revolution. You've got basically everybody that, you know, supports the revolution, because it's not like everybody is out fighting. I mean, business is ongoing. There's shops open all over the place. We just sat in a cafe and had ice cream. There's toys and chairs and bicycles for sale, and life goes on.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK ENGINE)

MCEVERS: Locals tell us it's not just about feeding, transporting, treating and housing the rebels. It's also about providing better governance than the Syrian state could offer.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: This elderly sheikh now serves on a rebel-appointed council of judges who hear cases brought by the people.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Before the revolution, he was a preacher in a mosque. Now he says he applies strict Islamic law to the cases brought before him. He recently sentenced a man to 100 lashes for having sex out of wedlock.

My translator, who recently lived in Syria's mostly secular capital, Damascus, later groans at the thought of being punished for who he sleeps with. He says he can't help but wonder if the new, shadow government will be any better than the previous one.

And there's the real concern that the shadow government might not last, that the Syrian regime will somehow regain control in these areas and punish people for providing so much support and cover for the rebels.

Back in Qurqanya, we watch as regime helicopters circle closer toward the village, firing rockets in the hills just beyond. It's the closest the regime forces have ever gotten to Qurqanya.

Fired twice?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yeah.

MCEVERS: Yup.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKETS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: That was two.

Later that night, I see the first signs of worry on the face of the woman of the house where we're staying. She won't let me record her, but she keeps asking me what I think will happen.

Will the regime come for us tomorrow? She says. No, I tell her. I don't think so. What about after that? She says. I tell her I just don't know.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

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