Rebel fighters build shadow state in Syria’s countryside

The Independent reports: In the rolling blue hills and lush olive groves of the north Syrian countryside, a fledgling rebel state is forming, as opponents of Bashar al-Assad’s regime attempt to take control.

The winding roads are criss-crossed with regular Free Syrian Army (FSA) checkpoints and although some are simply lines of rocks scattered across the road, others have kiosks painted with the colours of the opposition flag. Plain-clothes FSA men co-ordinate with short-wave radios, checking the roads ahead are clear and searching passing vehicles for weapons and regime forces.

“The army can’t come to here,” said Abu Mari, an FSA commander, recently returned from 30 years in exile. Driving through the streets of these villages, he receives salutes of recognition. He openly carries a gun, its butt taped with the colours of the new Syrian flag.

At the secret headquarters of the al-Haq brigade, hidden in a cave complex in the mountains, he outlined the plans for a future free zone here, modelled on the area around Benghazi in last year’s Libyan war. “First thing, we make checkpoints,” he explained. “Anyone who is working with the government, we capture him.”

“Idlib is our Benghazi,” agreed the dozen or so men slouched on the Persian carpets and cushions that lined the rocky walls and floor of the cave. A mix of army defectors and local volunteers, they’re part of a brigade of armed men. Their headquarters is equipped with a satellite dish powered by a stolen generator and routed through neighbouring Turkey. There’s satellite television and high-speed wireless internet. But it’s a long way from the Libyan safe haven protected by Nato air strikes, which was the springboard to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.

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