Editor’s note: Rebels over the past few days have battled Syrian government forces in the northwestern city of Aleppo, the country’s commercial capital. It's a stronghold of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and home to about 4 million people. The battle is part of a 16-month conflict in Syria that began elsewhere in the country when a fierce government crackdown on protesters morphed into a nationwide uprising against the regime.
CNN’s Ivan Watson and crew are some of the few Western reporters in Syria, whose government has been restricting access on foreign journalists and refusing many of them entry. Below is an edited account of what Watson has seen and been told in rebel-controlled towns near Aleppo on Wednesday:
People in every village in Aleppo province that CNN has visited say they’ve sent fighters to try to capture Aleppo. The bulk of the fighters are Syrian, but CNN has seen some foreigners among them.
There seems to be constant movement between these opposition-held enclaves and Aleppo, with some fighters leaving Aleppo to move their fallen comrades, and other, fresher fighters moving in. In the past two days, CNN’s crew has passed two funerals in area villages for two rebel fighters who were killed in Aleppo.
The fighting in the region is having a visible effect on civilian life. Cars, trucks and vans loaded with civilians are leaving Aleppo. Some of those people earlier had left their villages to stay in Aleppo, because the city had been a safe haven until fighting began on Friday. But now some are going back to the villages they’d left.
Still, villages look increasingly deserted as you get closer to the big city. In the village of Injara, about 10 kilometers (a little over six miles) west of Aleppo, Sunni cleric Sheikh Ali Bukhro took CNN’s crew on a tour of the near-empty streets. He pointed out craters and holes in at least six stone houses, which he and residents said had been hit by rockets and artillery from a Syrian army base about four kilometers (2.5 miles) away.
“They hit us every night,” Bukhro said.
Other residents, mostly men who stayed behind to guard their homes, lamented that they hadn’t had electricity or running water in more than a month. Some men said they had sent their families to refugee camps in Turkey.
Villages and towns in this area have rebel brigades, and big cities have revolutionary councils that try to oversee the different militias that have sprung up. While most of the fighters are Syrian, some are foreigners who enter Syria through unofficial crossings at the Syria-Turkey border. Turkish border police generally have taken a laissez-faire approach to dealing with the fighters going into Syria, as well as with the civilians going back and forth between the countries (thousands of people have fled into Turkey to escape the fighting).
On Wednesday, CNN’s crew met a Libyan fighter who had crossed into Syria from Turkey with four other Libyans. The fighter wore full camouflage and was carrying a Kalashnikov rifle. He said more Libyan fighters were on the way.
“The foreign fighters, some of them are clearly drawn because they see this as … a jihad. So this is a magnet for jihadists who see this as a fight for Sunni Muslims,” Watson reported on CNN International’s “Amanpour” Wednesday night. “And that’s definitely cause for concern among some Syrian revolutionaries I know … who do not want an Islamist political agenda to be mixed in with their revolution.”
A majority of Syrians are Sunnis, and Sunnis make up a bulk of the opposition to Syria’s regime, which is dominated by minority Alawites, followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Earlier this week, in neighboring Idlib province, residents of a village where the rebel Syrian Falcons brigade was headquartered said fighters of several North African nationalities were serving in the brigade, even though the group's leader insisted all of his fighters were Syrian. At least one armed man there introduced himself to CNN as a citizen of Turkey.