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And it's thought that the Syrian province of Idlib, near the border with Turkey, might be the first to fall under the control of rebels. If that happens, the area could serve as a safe zone for rebel fighters and aid workers. But one key government-controlled army base is standing in the way.
NPR's Kelly McEvers just returned from Idlib, and sent this report.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: The fight for a Syrian army base called Wadi Daif started back in October, and rebels say it's still not over yet.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Through translator) Do you see the hill?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Through translator) So it's on hill, on the left side.
MCEVERS: OK, so that's the base there. OK.
Just behind the front lines, rebels tell us they have the base surrounded. But the army uses its much heavier weaponry to keep the rebels back.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Through translator) There are days where we would be based here, and they would shell us. And there are days when we attack them first.
MCEVERS: The reason this base is so important is that it's situated on the main highway, linking northern Syria to the capital, Damascus. Losing it would mean government forces lose the way to reinforce their troops by ground. It also would mean government forces would stop bombing civilians, would stop punishing them for housing the rebels.
As we drive into the nearest city, Maaret al Numan, the Syrian journalists and activists in the car with us go silent. The destruction is devastating.
Yeah, there's just nobody here. It's like a ghost town. Every single storefront has been destroyed on this street. Oh, my God.
The driver pulls up to a massive pile bricks and stones and rebar that looks like it used to be a building.
There are still three bodies there. They could not remove them. They are between the rubble.
In the center of town, another rebel group is stationed in the main museum that once showcased mosaics and artifacts from the Byzantine era, when this area was first settled. Now, a loud generator powers the complex.
The rebel commander stationed here says it's not just the city that's been pounded by government forces, but all of the towns and villages around it. Some villages are now empty of people who've fled to Turkey or are now living in forests among the ancient ruins.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: Of course, it's important to take this base for tactical reasons, the commander says. But it's also about revenge. The main hospital in Maaret al Numan has borne most of the burden of this fight, which so far has killed more than 1,000 people and wounded thousands more, says hospital director Bassel Asfar.
BASSEL ASFAR: (Through translator) There was a day when we managed to save only one girl from a family of 40 people, that the building - the whole building collapsed, and of 40 people, we managed to save one girl.
MCEVERS: Now that the rebels are putting more pressure on the Wadi Daif base, Asfar says a few people are starting to trickle back. He and other locals say one reason for the change is that the rebel fighters recently united with Islamist fighters, who reportedly get funding from donors in rich Gulf countries. That means the Islamists have better weapons than the other groups.
MCEVERS: Still, Asfar says he worries about the Islamists' real objective. In the city's main square, the statue of a famous 11th century philosopher who rejected religion recently was destroyed. It's still unclear who was responsible.
ASFAR: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: Even if these Islamists liberate all of Syria, Asfar says, we will hold them accountable for what they have done. If you want to know more, he says, why don't you ask this gentleman? It turns out, one of the Islamists has walked into the office where we're interviewing Asfar.
ABU BEER: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: The man, Abu Bia(ph), says the Islamists' goal is to establish an Islamic state in Syria that will bring justice to all. But he says the mystical Sufi Islam, practiced for centuries in this city, is an empty religion.
We leave the hospital and go to the tomb of the philosopher, Abu Ala al-Ma'arri. Moderate rebel fighters tell us hard-line Islamists recently came with a backhoe and tried to remove the grave.
Now, these men are stationed here around the clock to protect the site.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)
MCEVERS: They can't come here, one young fighter says. This is my grandfather. These are my ancestors. Kelly McEvers, NPR News.
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