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Rebels in Syria are making slow but steady advances in the north of their country. Last week, they captured a third major border crossing between Syria and Turkey, and they claim to now control a similar border crossing with Iraq. The rebels say it's all part of a strategy to secure a kind of safe zone in the north, as they try to topple the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
NPR's Kelly McEvers was among the first reporters to cross into Syria at the new rebel-controlled border crossing with Turkey, and she sent this report.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: OK. We are walking, just about to cross the border. There's a guy holding up a piece of barbed wire fence. Thank you very much.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Welcome to Syria.
MCEVERS: Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Syria new, Syria jadida.
MCEVERS: The new Syria.
There's actually not a whole lot that's new at this border crossing - not yet, at least. The government flag has been replaced with the flag of the Syrian revolution. There's revolutionary graffiti all over the guard house. It's clear that government forces have fled, and a dozen or so armed rebels now live here.
(SOUNDBITE OF CANS BEING DRAGGED)
MCEVERS: There's also a handful of guys dragging garbage cans, the revolution's first efforts at providing services that stopped when rebels drove the government out of the area. Next step is turning the electricity back on.
Men in civilian clothes sit us down to tell us the town just beyond this border crossing - a town of about 20,000 people called Tal Abyad - will be run by civilians, not by guys with guns.
SAAD AL-FAHAD: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: This man, Saad al-Fahad, says he was elected just yesterday to head up a new town council. He talks about building a pluralistic, civil society. But first, the area needs security. Regime forces are still shelling here every day.
This was the main customs building here. You know, a third of this building has just been shorn off by a shell.
Inside the building, we sit down with Abu Azzam, one of the rebel commanders who helped liberate the border crossing and the town beyond.
Abu Azzam used to study Arabic literature. He says he hopes to get a PhD and teach at a university someday. Now he wears a medium-length beard, fatigues, a pistol at his waist and a small prayer cap.
ABU AZZAM: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: He says the regime's army is trying to take the border crossing back again. It recently sent a column of 15 tanks and a thousand soldiers who are now surrounding the area.
AZZAM: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: Abu Azzam says if the rebels can hold the crossing and the town, the idea is to create a 30-mile-deep safe zone all along the Turkish-Syrian border, where rebels can plan operations as they move to try and take Syria's capital, and where civilians can feel safe from the regime's army.
But how safe is it? Not only is the regime's army still present here, but foreign fighters are now entering Syria through these liberated border posts, sometimes with jihadist agendas.
Once inside the town, the only civilians we see are a handful of people in a pickup truck, and they're on their way out. The bakeries have reopened, but apparently just to make bread for the fighters. One of two functioning stores clearly caters to the rebels, too.
This is a store that sells cigarettes. You must be doing a good business.
Otherwise, the town is almost completely empty.
ABU YAZEN: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: Our guide, Abu Yazen, shows us the blackened, pockmarked government buildings that were taken by the rebels. We ask Abu Yazen why the town is so empty. He says it's because 80 percent of the people in town actually sided with the government, not with the rebels.
What happens when those 80 percent of the people come back and they want their houses back? What's going to happen to them?
YAZEN: (Foreign language spoken)
MCEVERS: Those who have blood on their hands will be tried, he says. The others will come back and help us build a new country.
We've stopped at an elementary school that now serves as a kind of media center, where activists upload videos of rebel conquests.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: What? (Foreign language spoken) What?
MCEVERS: Someone rushes in to tell us they've spotted a column of trucks with mounted machine guns that belong to the regime's army.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK MOTOR)
MCEVERS: We have to hurry out of town before we know the end of the story.
Kelly McEvers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.