Ben Hubbard, Associated Press
AZAZ, Syria — Residents of this north Syrian border town like to snap photos of their children atop the tank parked downtown, one of more than a dozen captured or destroyed by rebels in the battles last month that "liberated" the area from President Bashar Assad's army.
Across the street in air-conditioned offices once occupied by Assad's Baath party, a new political order is emerging. Local rebels have formed committees to fix power lines, fire up bakeries and staff the nearby border crossing with Turkey. They also run security patrols and a prison with some 60 captives. Two men were executed by firing squad recently after a judge and Islamic clerics found them guilty of murder.
"We run a state system here," said Samir Hajj Omar, the silver-haired former teacher who heads the rebel political office for Azaz, a town of 35,000. "We're enforcing the law."
In recent months, Syria's rebels have extended control over a large swath of territory in the northeastern corner of the country after forcing the army from town after town in a string of bloody street battles.
As a result, for the first time in Syria's 17-month conflict, rebels have a cohesive enclave in which they can move and organize with unprecedented freedom, plus a long stretch of the border with Turkey key for moving out refugees and smuggling in weapons. They also have one official, working border crossing.
The area extends about 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of the Turkish border and from the edge of Idlib province in the west to the cities of al-Bab and Manbaj some 130 kilometers (80 miles) east. Its southern edges reach the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria's largest city and for weeks the scene of heavy battles as regime forces try to uproot rebels who have taken control of several neighborhoods.
The pocket is not an outright safe zone. The military holds two bases within it — at Mannagh airport near Azaz and at an infantry academy north of Aleppo. From there, it shells nearby towns daily, wrecking buildings and killing people. It often targets rebel enclaves with helicopters and fighter jets; there remains a continual back-and-forth of residents fleeing homes around the areas.
But the army has largely surrendered the ground, creating a huge vacuum for rebels to fill. Across the scattered farm towns, locals have formed councils to remove rubble, restore utilities and funnel supplies to fighters in Aleppo. They organize security patrols to guard against thieves and government spies. Some are running prisons and rudimentary courts.
Their efforts are hugely decentralized. Each town is on its own. There is no national, or even regional, body for them to report to.
Since the anti-Assad uprising started in March 2011 with protests calling for political change, opposition leaders have failed to offer little more than a vague idea of the kind of state they hope to found should the regime fall. More than 20,000 people have been killed since as the conflict has transformed into a full-scale civil war.
While still new, these early organizational efforts shine a light on the priorities of rising local leaders. When asked, all say they want a civilian state that respects its citizens. More concerning to the West and to Syria's religious minorities, most said that Islam was their guide more than any political ideology. What that means for them remains unformed in many ways, but what is clear is that they seek a role for religion in public life after four decades of secular rule.
"Religion is the basis of everything for us," said Abdel-Aziz Salameh, head of a "revolutionary council" that coordinates various rebel factions in Aleppo and the nearby countryside. "It is the driving force of the revolution."
Salameh spoke from the basement of the police station in Tal Rifat, some 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Aleppo, now the headquarters of one of Syria's largest rebel groupings, the Islamist Brigade of Unification.
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