SURAN, Syria – When the uprising against President Bashar Assad started, Fatima Zahra gave up her life as a dressmaker in a small town in northern Syria and began cooking and delivering meals for the rebels.
Bucking tradition in conservative rural Aleppo province, the stern, blue-eyed matron has also opened her and her husband's home to soldiers defecting from the army, providing them with sanctuary before they either join the rebels or head back to their villages.
"There are two or three other families in the village doing this kind of work but they are afraid to be known," she said. "I am not afraid of what I am doing because I believe the revolution will be successful."
Support from rebel-controlled towns and villages dotting the rich farmland of this northwestern pocket near the Turkish border is likely one reason that rebel forces have been able to keep going in a now 2-month-old battle for control of Syria's largest city, Aleppo. The region is the rebels' strategic depth. Towns provide fighters. Residents help funnel food, supplies and ammunition to the front lines. And rebels engaged in the fight can find a safe refuge to rest and recuperate.
Rebels in July launched an audacious assault on Aleppo, Syria's commercial hub that until then had been untouched by the fighting. Eight weeks on, the rebels have held large chunks of the city and show no signs of being driven out as they were in a failed assault on the capital of Damascus over the summer. According to the rebels, the vast majority of those fighting in Aleppo come from the towns and the villages to the north, many of which have been free from government control since May.
The rebels are proving the wisdom of Che Guevara, who preached the importance of establishing safe havens and local support in the countryside. "The guerrilla fighter needs full help from the people of the area. This is an indispensable condition," he wrote in the introduction to his 1960 manual "Guerrilla Warfare."
Every village has a base for the local battalion, where some rebels stay to patrol the countryside and those fighting in Aleppo can come back for a much-needed break before returning to the fray. Government forces, meanwhile, have to conserve manpower for fear of overstraining the elite units that are the only ones trusted to not defect in battle.
In the village of Suran on the outskirts of Aleppo, several young men fresh from the Aleppo fighting sprawl on thin mattresses and share a nargileh, puffing out aromatic clouds of apple-scented tobacco. For now, their uniforms are off and Kalashnikovs are stacked in the closet, but in days they will be back in Aleppo.
Abu Leith may have to wait a little longer than his comrades. In his wallet he carries the fragment of the sniper bullet that ricocheted off a wall and slammed into his shoulder the day before in a successful assault on a government barracks in the northeastern Aleppo neighborhood of Hananu.
"The fight is going well," he said, echoing the inexplicably high morale of his fellow rebels in the face of an enemy possessing a modern air force and mechanized brigades. "We believe in what we are doing, and they don't."
The next day, Monday, the injured went to the balcony to wave to their comrades prepared to head back to Aleppo.
Some rebels used the last moments before the journey to pray. Others loaded bullets into their magazines and checked the straps on their battle fatigues.
"We will make our stand to the last drop of blood," said Abu Yaari, a 39-year-old rebel, who like many fighters gave only a nickname for fear of retribution. "All the fighters you see are living martyrs."
With cries of "God is great," they then all piled into a pickup truck and a battered SUV and roared off in a cloud of dust.
The rebels in Aleppo province, most of whom say they are under the umbrella of the Tawhid or Unification Division that launched the assault on Aleppo in July, also are involved in governing these small towns that could well become the kernel of a new Syria outside of Assad's control.
"The rebels control the area and help the civilians govern it, and then there are our military duties," said Abdel Malik Atassi, a 27-year-old rebel from a battalion based in the town of Marea. "We protect the bakeries and resolve local problems."
The rebels have even set up a court system here. Acting as a judge is Ibrahim al-Najjar, a lawyer who fled from Aleppo after he woke up one morning to find government tanks ringing his apartment building.
"We have a mixture of civil and Islamic law," he explained, leaning on his motorcycle outside a home that been demolished by a regime jet the week before. "Marriages, for instance, are under Islamic law, but money and commercial matters are under civil law. ... With the new system, there is more justice and it is swifter."
Flush with food from a good harvest, the villages have enough to feed themselves as well as the rebels in their midst, many of whom receive home-cooked meals from residents such as Zahra every day.
Zahra, who wears a traditional headscarf common in the rural areas, used to travel to Aleppo buy fabric for her dresses but then began ferrying food to the fighters in the city until the road became too dangerous.
Now, she cooks up lunches of meat and vegetables, often with supplies donated by other villagers, for a band of several dozen rebels.
"They know I'm a strong woman, so they never say anything to my face," she said about some of the local women who disapproved of her mixing with so many men in a conservative society. "But I can tell the way some look at me that they had something on their minds."
Marketplaces in these towns are bursting with bright red peppers, purple eggplant and golden bushels of corn, while herds of sheep roam the countryside.
Yet many people used up their savings to make it through the last winter. Some of those who've flocked to the refugee camps in Turkey did so not just out of fear of the fighting, but because they've run out of money.
With more than 80,000 crossing the border to the refugee camps, there are fewer mouths to feed in the villages.
"So many people have fled to Turkey, so there is enough, though sometimes we have some shortages," said Zahra, who isn't looking forward to the colder weather. "This winter will be so difficult. There will be problems with the heating and the cooking because we have no fuel."
It is with an eye to the future that France announced Sept. 5 that it had started giving direct aid to five unidentified towns in the northern provinces of Idlib, Aleppo and Deir al-Zour that all have large areas outside the regime's control.
The aid is largely practical, including rebuilding bakeries, water systems and developing health care facilities. Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said it would prepare the ground for a future without the regime.
"The humanitarian dimension also has a political goal. It is clearly in our minds to prepare for after Bashar al-Assad, what we call, 'the day after,'" he told reporters Friday.
Associated Press writer Nebi Qena contributed to this report.