Editor's note: CNN's Ivan Watson is reporting from northern Syria, where he is seeing rural communities opposed to President Bashar al-Assad's regime. He describes these areas as free of a strong government presence but says residents are concerned the Syrian army could launch a military offensive in the countryside if it's victorious in the city of Homs.
Watson is one of a few reporters in Syria, where the government has been placing restrictions on international journalists and refusing many of them entry at all.Â Below is an edited account of what Watson and his team are seeing and hearing on the ground:
The countryside here in northern Syria is in open revolt, and this is rebellion of farmers, of carpenters and of high school teachers.
Entire communities, villages and stretches of towns across northern Syria tell us that they have not seen the presence of central Syrian government authority in months.
They have been effectively governing themselves, and they have clearly established militias as well as pockets of what's been called the Free Syrian Army – defectors from the Syrian army who have joined these villages and rural communities in opposition to the Syrian government.
As we've traveled across this region, we've gone from village to village, from small council to small council, where young men and old, sit on the ground, chain-smoking, next to Kalashnikov assault rifles, weapons they say they've gotten within the last couple of months.
It does appear that villages and towns in northern Syria have been, basically, out of government control for months now, except when government forces have tried to conduct deadly incursions into these towns that are temporary at best.
Nearly everybody we talked to was able to show photos in their cell phones of neighbors, of relatives who have been killed in some of these incursions.
An additional point that is fascinating is that these communities are now experimenting in self-rule. They're providing their own services to their communities – in many cases, hosting hundreds of defected Syrian soldiers who they identify as the Free Syrian Army.
From positions that we have been in, Syrian government forces have only been a few kilometers away, within line of sight actually. We've gotten one view of one of the largest cities in the region, the city of Idlib, and it's incredible.
There you could see a Syrian government flag prominently flying in the heart of the city, and less than a kilometer away, a Syrian opposition flag – of green, black and white – also flying in the heart of the city.
It's clear that sometimes what's dividing these forces, what's dividing government and opposition control, is just a matter of kilometers.
Government and rebel forces are very close together and, in some cases, engaging in fierce battles with a daily report of casualties, of civilians dying as a result of these deadly clashes.
And there have been cases, we've been told, within the last 24 hours of deadly artillery assaults hitting opposition-held villages and killing at least two residents of that village.
They tell us they're trying to protect their communities, their families, their villages by laying rings of improvised landmines, but they're fully aware they do not have weaponry to match the tanks, armored personnel carriers and air power of President Bashar al-Assad's army. So far the only weaponry we have seen are assault rifles, which can't really do a lot of damage against the kind of armor and air power that the Syrian government has.
They do seem to be preparing for the possibility of a Syrian military offensive that they know they won't have considerable weaponry to defend themselves against.
The inhabitants say they're enjoying what they say is self-rule, what they call pockets of liberated Syria, but they're fully aware the bulk of the Syrian army is being held down in the siege of the much larger city of Homs.
They say if that siege lifts and if the Syrian government forces are victorious there, that will free them up to attack these areas, and they warn that would lead to a massacre.
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