RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has given a rare interview to the Sunday Times of London. He blamed the West for supporting terrorism and said the nearly two-year-old war in Syria would not be solved by foreigners. He said it's up to Syrians to decide what's good for the country. And in the northern province of Aleppo, civilians are doing just that. They're taking part in the first free vote outside of the control of Assad's regime. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Gaziantep in southern Turkey, where the voting is taking place.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Most election stories begin with the issues, the candidates and what's at stake. But this election is about a first-time vote for civilian leaders in a rebel-held province in northern Syria, how to hold a vote when your city is being bombed by the regime you're trying to replace. Safety is a concern, so the elections moved here to southern Turkey. The voters are limited - only 224 selected delegates will cast ballots. Still, they have to make the dangerous drive to the Turkish border. Aleppo lawyer Yaseen al-Hillal said he took the risk to help build a new Syrian state.
YASEEN AL-HILLAL: (Through Translator) Yes, actually, it was very dangerous. The roads are prone to being bombed at any point in time. Then we entered through an illegal crossing. There was one shot fired, in fact, probably a warning. And we said, you know, we're not afraid from you. We've already been dealing with Scuds and bombing.
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AMOS: Al-Hillal jokes about his trip at this Turkish cafe with a dozen doctors and lawyers who work in Aleppo. Now, they're all candidates for seats on the city council and a wider provincial government. The entire election organization moved to southern Turkey over a weekend. An army of activists arrived to set up a media center.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)
CROWD: (Foreign language spoken)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing in foreign language)
AMOS: For a city without electricity or Internet, a new FM radio station opened to cover the elections through transmitters that reach Aleppo.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)
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AMOS: And in an unfurnished apartment, an election center is already bustling.
KHALID AL-UMAR: (Foreign language spoken)
AMOS: These bare rooms look more like a college dorm with floor mattresses, plastic chairs and desks. Computers and cameras are everywhere. The election spokesman is Khalid al-Umar. He's a pharmacist on a medical team in Aleppo. A few days earlier, he was digging bodies out of the rubble after a missile strike flattened more than 30 houses. Now, he's putting the best spin on an election that is chaotic, with limited electors, held outside of Syria.
AL-UMAR: It's a kind of giving a new hope with all the destroying, with all killing. We will get our freedom. We will organize ourself. We will do our best. So, this is what it means for us.
AMOS: What this election means for civilian rule in Aleppo is unclear in a city still at war, where armed rebel groups have power and the Assad regime has stepped up missile strikes on residential neighborhoods.
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AMOS: Still, the majority of people living in Aleppo are civilians, says Tamam al-Baroudi, a businessman, who just arrived in this Turkish town to observe the first free vote. International aid is finally reaching Aleppo, he says. The distribution must be organized by civilians. An elected council can do a lot, he says.
TAMAM AL-BAROUDI: Like help people in foods, in medicine, to clean the cities. It's very big problem. They can help a lot more in these things. Everybody want these kind of people to work. No problem.
AMOS: But how these councils are elected matters to 26-year-old Maha Grer, a Syrian activist who took part in the early demonstrations when young Syrians risked their lives to call for democracy.
Do you consider this the first democratic election in Aleppo?
MAHA GRER: I don't know yet. I hope so. I don't know yet. We will see in the future.
AMOS: She is part of a workshop on election monitoring. The course is sponsored by the National Democratic Institute in Washington. Erin Mathews, the program director, says Syrian activists reached out to NDI to help ensure a fair vote in Syria's largest city.
ERIN MATHEWS: This workshop is about domestic election monitoring, what it means to a democratic system. It's about people looking for legitimacy and credibility in a process so that people trust these councils later on.
AMOS: Aleppo's first election is messy, says Mathews, but still important.
MATHEWS: It's as real as they can make it right now. If that starts with a few hundred people, that's what they have. And if it has to start outside of the country, that's the unfortunate reality for Syria right now.
AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News, Gaziantep, Turkey.