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Originally published Thursday, June 7, 2012 at 9:28 PM

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Rebels carve out a safe haven in northern and central Syria

Amid the widely reported massacres and sanctions, the loosely affiliated groups fighting President Bashar Assad's military have secured a swath of territory where they are stockpiling and manufacturing weapons.

McClatchy Newspapers

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QALAAT AL-MUDIQ, Syria —

It's been two months since anyone has seen a police officer in this central Syrian city.

While the Syrian military occupies an ancient citadel overlooking Qalaat al-Mudiq, it's reached a truce with the Free Syrian Army rebel groups that control the city below. Residents and rebel leaders say the last time military forces attempted to enter the city was in March, but two ambushes pushed them back to their base.

The military doesn't enter, shoot at or shell the town anymore, even though a rebel sniper recently killed a soldier who had stood exposed too long in the citadel.

The Free Syrian Army, the moniker taken by most of the loosely organized militias that have taken up arms against Syrian President Bashar Assad's government, kicked police out of the city in September. The army later tried to install a pair of police officers in the local station, but they promptly were abducted by the rebels when the army withdrew. They were released to their families after a ransom was paid.

Amid a torrent of news coverage focused on massacres and sanctions, a major change in the Syrian political landscape has gone largely unremarked: Across northern and central Syria, in an area known as the al-Ghab Plain, a growing number of villages and towns effectively are outside government control.

Life in a safe space

In an area that stretches from the mountains around Jisr al-Shughour in the north to Salhab in the south, and east to the highway that links Hama and Idlib, rebels administer justice and provide local services, including the distribution of cooking gas and food.

A U.N. cease-fire that was to begin in April never has really taken effect, but rebel fighters and sympathizers in these safe havens live largely outside Syrian military intervention. Troops who patrol nearby do so in armored vehicles because of the threat of roadside bombs and ambushes.

The safe space has allowed rebels to stockpile and manufacture weapons and hold prisoners.

It also provides a base from which the rebels move into other parts of the country that have been relatively quiet.

That dynamic was on display as recently as Tuesday, when fighting erupted in al-Haffa, a town near the city of Latakia on the Mediterranean Coast. Latakia remains a government stronghold, but rebels have pushed out of their areas to challenge the government in villages around the city.

Twenty-two government soldiers were reported killed in the al-Haffa fighting, and rebels who fought there before withdrawing to the al-Ghab area said they had freed prisoners, abducted police officers and bulldozed the local police station and secret police offices before withdrawing under an intense attack from helicopter gunships.

"The army only controls the area directly under their tanks," said Mohanned al-Masri, a member of Ahrar al-Sham, one of the groups based in the al-Ghab Plain and the primary supplier of rebel fighters at al-Haffa. "Here, the regime has already fallen."

Ahrar al-Sham also is manufacturing rockets in the area. "We are perfecting the accuracy now," said Khalid al-Amin, the leader of Ahrar al-Sham in Qalaat al-Mudiq.

In this town, the array of rebel forces is on display — as are the differences among them.

Ahrar al-Sham draws its members from followers of a conservative strain of Islam known as Salafism; followers see themselves as fighting in part for the right to preach their doctrine and for the fall of a government that jailed them for doing so.

Another group, Suqor al-Ghab, the largest in Qalaat al-Mudiq, claims to be aligned with the largely secular Free Syrian Army leadership in Turkey.

On Monday, its forces here were overseeing the distribution of cooking gas, which is in short supply across the country because of sanctions against Assad's government.

Ironies of war

The ironies of the ongoing war also are on display.

"I am still drawing my government check as a teacher," Mousab al-Hamadee, an anti-government activist, said, smiling. The Syrian government continues to provide services such as electricity and water without interruption.

"Things are going on as usual, except that it became hard for Alawites to come to work," said Amin, the Ahrar al-Sham leader, referring to members of the Shiite Muslim sect that also includes Assad.

Ahrar al-Sham members, as Salafis, follow Sunni Islam. Amind said Alawites now fear retaliation from Sunnis for the support in Alawite villages for pro-government militiamen known locally as Shabiha.

On the outskirts of Qalaat al-Mudiq, fighters from Ahrar al-Sham lazily manned a checkpoint on the main road north to the city of Jisr al-Shughour, whose outskirts also are outside of government control.

Rebels who had crossed the Turkish border en route to Jisr al-Shughour last week said the army is entirely absent from the area.

The army holds the center of Idlib, the largest city in northwestern Syria, but the edges of the city and the surrounding areas belong to the rebels.

To the west of the checkpoint, nestled in the foothills of Latakia Mountain, the Free Syrian Army's control becomes more tenuous, as the Sunni-dominated area gives way to a string of villages populated largely by Alawites. Al-Ramleh, a Sunni village to the west of here, had been largely emptied after the killings of a woman and four of her children by pro-government militiamen two weeks ago.

Months earlier, the nearby village of Tamana had suffered a similar fate, after a raid by the military and pro-government militiamen.

Nonetheless, the rebels feel the momentum is strongly in their favor.

They say they are acquiring better weapons, including armor-piercing rocket-propelled grenade rounds, as the volume of arms being smuggled into Syria from Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey appears to have grown.

Groups of fighters in the area also are building bombs and stockpiling small mortar rounds.

Amin said Ahrar al-Sham and the other rebel groups are making plans to rid the city of the army's presence. The cease-fire would end in mid-June, he said, when the wheat crop had been harvested.

"There will be a big war," he said.

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