Syria’s rebels have captured hundreds of kilometres (miles) of territory in the country’s north in the past six months, an AFP correspondent who visited the area in March reported on Monday.
The journalist, who was in the northwestern province of Idlib in March, verified that the rebel Free Syrian Army had gained significant ground in the period since.
It is now possible to travel hundreds of kilometres in areas controlled by the FSA, only making infrequent detours to avoid nearby garrisons still in the hands of the regular army.
The rebels refer to these as “liberated” areas.
According to the reporter, the rebels have captured many villages in Idlib and the northern province of Aleppo, and forced troops loyal to Damascus to retreat on many fronts.
Most crossroads are controlled by small contingents of rebels, sleeping in a tent, calmly observing the traffic and intercepting cars with unknown passengers.
Al-Atarib, a small town west of Aleppo whose buildings bear the scars of fierce battles, was taken by the FSA three months ago. In the town centre, several charred carcasses of tanks remain.
Rebel leaders said their forces have encircled an important military base en route to Aleppo, which according to them is the last obstacle to Syria’s second city, where battles have raged for the past two months.
They claim to control all of the axes around the northern metropolis, and say that their only fear is aerial attacks.
On Sunday, a rebel commander told AFP that much of Syria’s territory is increasingly outside the control of the regular military, whose aerial superiority is keeping the Damascus regime afloat.
In some large towns, like Harim, the army does not budge from the centre, because the rebels have laid mines on the surrounding roads.
Last week, the insurgents took control of a fourth border crossing with Turkey, Tal al-Abyad, in northern Syria. Their goal is to connect the regions they control to create what could become a “liberated zone” backed by Ankara.
Northwest and northeast Syria is predominantly Kurdish territory, where Kurdish militias took control after the regular army withdrew, with the two parties avoiding hostilities.
The FSA too has established a modus vivendi with the Kurdish forces, who display their neutrality by keeping out of the fight, with rare exceptions joining the fight against the government army.