TAL RIFAT, Syria — Stretched to defend several fronts on the ground, Syrian government forces have intensified air attacks on northern towns and villages controlled by rebels of the Free Syrian Army. Bombings and artillery barrages have killed hundreds of people and emptied some places of most of their inhabitants.
In Marea, a town in northern Syria about 40 kilometers from Aleppo, a family clears up what remains of their home after a government warplane bombed it on August 21 killing one person and wounding eight others.
Salah, a produce merchant, says his family of eight now must leave Marea like thousands of people before them. He does not understand why troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are doing this.
"There's no reason. Just to show their power, to defy the people, to kill the people," he said.
Neighbor Walid helped rescue a man trapped underneath this roof.
"He was asleep with his children," Walid recalled. "Bashar al-Assad is a killer."
The man survived, but his lower body was crushed. He was taken to a hospital in Turkey. He will not be back soon.
Nearby Tal Rifat is virtually a ghost town. Of its 40,000 residents only 2,000 remain, mostly young men who stay to guard against looters.
Residents think the Syrian government was targeting a school. It has been hit twice in two weeks. They say perhaps the government thinks rebels of the Free Syrian Army are sheltering here.
Abu Ala runs a small store and is trying to get his degree in computer engineering. He says everything has stopped since the Syrian uprising began nearly 18 months ago.
"The situation in Tal Rifat is very bad, especially the human and economic situation," Ala said. "There is no food. The shops are empty. And every night we look for the MiGs [warplanes] to shell us."
Rebel leaders say the Syrian government has withdrawn ground troops from these towns in order to defend the major cities. So they bomb from the air.
The Syrian government says it is defending itself against terrorists who are seizing villages. The air attacks increased after Western leaders decided not to establish a no-fly zone. Residents say the Syrian government may have concluded that this gave it license to bomb with impunity.