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Syria's Bashar al-Assad remains in power in the capital city, Damascus. Move outside the capital and his power ranges from precarious to non-existent. But the very biggest victories have eluded the rebels fighting Assad. That's what we're going to hear as we visit the largest city in all of Syria.

About six months ago, anti-government rebels started an offensive to take the city of Aleppo. Many analysts now call that offensive a failure.

NPR's Kelly McEvers just returned from Aleppo and reports on what the rebels are doing now.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: In many ways, Aleppo is a tale of two cities. Imagine a circular blob with a line down the middle - 60 percent for the rebels in the East, 40 percent for the government in the West.

That line is supposedly the front line in Aleppo's war. But lately the front has gone cold, as people here say in Arabic.

We're peeping through this tiny little hole in the rocks, in the stone wall. And you can hear the shots. But just looking into the government controlled part of town, the government buildings and stuff - although this is kind of a no man's land. Right here in the border between the two there's a lot of trash, abandoned buildings. That mosque looks like it's been abandoned. The shots are from a government sniper, posted on top of one of those abandoned buildings. Although there's not much fighting here anymore, government soldiers sometimes try to pick off rebel fighters stationed here or civilians who cross from one side to another.

MARWA: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Marwa just crossed the front line. She and her sister sometimes make this perilous crossing twice a day. Her sister was almost killed by a sniper.

MARWA: (Through translator) The bullet came like in front of her almost. She needed to go back.

MCEVERS: Marwa works on the government side but lives on the rebel side. She says life is almost normal on the government side. There's more electricity and bread.

MARWA: (Through translator) I asked if she feels like she has a dual personality now, and she says, yeah, this is the reality.

MCEVERS: A rebel fighter stationed here says the two sides are so close they talk to each other at night.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Ah. They yell at each other.

They even know each other's names.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROSSTALK)

MCEVERS: Right now this cold front line is lot like the fight for Syria, in a nutshell - both sides think they can win, but neither side is winning, so neither side is going to back down.

In recent months, rebels have realized that fighting for inches along these front lines is no way to win a war. So while a small number of fighters hold the front, the rest have turned their attention to government air bases that ring the city.

Rebels believe if they can cut off the government's ability to re-supply its troops, Aleppo will fall.

So we're walking through an olive grove. Coming up just on the edge of the Mennagh airport on the outskirts of Aleppo. This is one of the three remaining key airbases surrounding the city.

Inside a ruined house we can see how rebels have surrounded the airport.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: See? You can see the tower.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Tower?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And the airplanes.

MCEVERS: Oh yeah, there's a helicopter there, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: This rebel fighter says rebels have been getting closer and closer to the base in recent weeks. But still, there are problems. He says his unit actually had to buy anti-aircraft weapons from another rebel unit. And he says he has no idea if rebels who recently captured another major airbase near here will come and help or just keep the weapons they seized to themselves and fight elsewhere.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: This guy was a government soldier at the Mennagh airbase until just a few days ago.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: We interviewed him in a car. He says the government army fed him only once a day, that the first chance he got he waved a white flag at the rebels and made his escape.

Deserting soldiers is one reason the government is losing control in Aleppo and the rest of northern Syria - that plus the fact that better trained and better equipped Islamist fighters - some of them from outside Syria - are now leading the battles at these government bases.

Of course many questions remain, like if rebels do take Aleppo, then what? They say they'll join other rebels who are already are fighting to take Syria's capital, Damascus. But they face a tough battle there. And still, taking Aleppo could be a long way off.

As one Syrian civilian leader in the city told us, if we use logic, it could happen in three months. If we don't, well, we're talking years.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

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