There is a swathe of territory in the north of Syria where government troops are no longer present. They have been driven out by opposition fighters. In these towns and villages, people feel they are no longer living in what they called a big prison.
“We feel safer now than we ever have been. This is what we feel even though the fighter jets are above us and carrying out air attacks,” Mohammed, a 23-year-old fighter in Maarat al-Numan, told me.
It was ironic especially since he told me that in a basement where we took shelter from the warplanes.
“At least now, we no longer expect intelligence officers to knock on our doors and arrest us for no reason,” Mohammed explained.
The opposition’s flags are now hoisted in this city. Rebels managed to force government forces to retreat to the outskirts of Maarat al-Numan on October 10 after two days of battles.
There is widespread destruction. Buildings have been destroyed. This wasn’t the result of the battles but the army’s response after they pulled out.
Since then, the military has been on the defensive. There has been relentless air and artillery bombardment. Many of its residents have fled to nearby villages. It is just too dangerous for them to stay. The city is a ghost town. It is only the fighters who roam the streets.
The government soldiers are now based in two barracks – Wadi al-Deif and Hamdiye – on the outskirts of the Maarat al-Numan. They are heavily fortified and have ammunition and fuel depots. They lie on the main highway linking Damascus to the northern city of Aleppo.
It is strategic territory for both sides to control.
The army has been trying to send reinforcements to the bases, but rebels have managed to block the highway south of the city.
Rebels are confident that they will be able to overrun these bases. They say they will win this battle even with the light weaponry they have.
When state troops withdrew from the eastern sector of Maarat al-Numan (the rebels were already the force on the ground in the west), the fighters called it a major breakthrough. Undoubtedly it was, but fighter jet attacks over the territory serve as a reminder of which side still has the upper hand.
‘Very costly battle’
Some believe the army’s air superiority may not be decisive because troops are demoralised. There was no sign of that while we were in the city. The troops were fighting back hard.
And unless the soldiers surrender, run out of food, water and ammunition, it may not be an easy victory for the opposition fighters.
The enemy sides are only a few hundred metres apart. A full-blown assault by the rebels may be difficult because snipers do their best to prevent them from approaching the security compound.
Most of the fighters are from Maarat al-Numan and surrounding villages. And many of them are not over 25 years of age, with little war experience.
“It may take a while and this could be a very costly battle. There may be up to 1,000 soldiers in Wadi al-Deif alone,” Ahmed, a member of the Martyrs of Syria Brigade, told me. Ahmed doesn’t fight. He is a media activist.
He believes it was a strategic mistake to launch the offensive in Maarat al-Numan. “The Damascus-Aleppo highway has already been blocked by the rebels further south. So the regime hasn’t been able to use this route to send forces to Aleppo for some time now,” Ahmed explained.
Aleppo has been the scene of fierce fighting since rebels stormed the financial capital in mid-July.
“What they [opposition fighters] should have done was try to take out regime positions on the main highway from the province of Latakia in the west to Allepo. The regime has bases in Jisr al-Shughur, Sarakeb and Ariha for example where they positioned most of the artillery batteries shelling areas in Idlib province … If we control those positions, then it would relieve many villages from the artillery attacks and cut off their supply route from the west.”
Clearing Idlib province from the army’s presence will in some way lift the siege. Not all roads in this province are secure. We drove by the airport in Taftanaz and saw the military helicopters take off and land.
It has become quite difficult for the military to reinforce their units in the remaining positions in the countryside, however, they still control compounds. The artillery continues to be fired at villages and towns forcing tens of thousands to seek shelter elsewhere.
But there is no denying the army has suffered major setbacks in the north. The territorial gains mean a lot to the people of this area. They say they are enjoying some form of freedom.
Their towns no longer have checkpoints. They no longer have to worry about snipers if their village is not on a frontline. But these gains mean little when the army still has strategic positions and there isn’t a no-fly zone in place.
Follow Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr on Twitter: @ZeinakhodrAljaz