Idlib in the Eye of Storm

A report that describes the situation in Idlib


  • Demographic Changes following liberation
  • Social status during the Revolution
  • Legal Status of women and the disappeared
  • Human Rights in Idlib
  • Military Situation and the war princes

Demographic Changes:

Late in 2016, deportation deals started in Al Kusair of Homs and some areas of Damascus Suburbs. These deals continued to include Barada Valley near Damascus and then the “Four Town Agreement” (Madaya and Zabadani) near Damascus, and (Al Phoa’a and Kufraya) near Idlib City. This deal was made end of March 2017. In February 2017, the Coalition Forces started a military campaign against ISIS in Al Rakka. This campaign caused the displacement of tens of thousands from Al Mayadeen, Al Bukamal and Deir Ezzour to Idlib Province and some other areas. Some other IDPs came from Al Anbar area in Iraq to escape the feverish war against ISIS in Iraq. Later, more IDPs fled the war in Mussel in the North of Iraq. Again, some of them arrived in Idlib Province. Some IDPs settled in camps near the border with Turkey where some of them kept trying to illegally cross the border to Turkey. Those who failed are still living in the camps.   

In January 2018, Assad’s Forces started a military campaign with the help of Russian air forces against the Northern Countryside of Hama and Southern and Southeastern Countryside of Idlib. The area witnessed a huge unprecedented influx of IDPs. More than 200000 persons were displaced in about 100 villages and towns in the area. All these IDPs settled in the towns and villages and IDP camps in Idlib Province after the city of Idlib was full of IDPs.

In the meanwhile, the Turkish Army started deploying military observance points in the Western Countryside of Aleppo and Southern Countryside of Idlib. The military operation of Assad’s Forces stopped and some IDPs started going back to towns and villages that were not occupied by the Regime’s Forces. Some others went back to their Assad-controlled villages.

End of March 2018, a new deportation started in Harasta of Damascus and 2750 deportees were sent to Idlib.

The population of Idlib Province has nearly doubled and the border area has become like a sea of tents. House rent has become unaffordable for most Syrian as the rent of a modest house has become about 300 USD. The worst was coming; most of the new comers are either orphans who lost one or both parents or widows whose husbands either died in the war or mysteriously disappeared. Some other IDPs are disabled or injured. This new situation created a new catastrophe and a horrible humanitarian situation that is beyond the abilities of local and international humanitarian agencies and NGOs

Social Situation during the Revolution

Unemployment has dramatically increased because of the destruction of the infrastructure like factories and private workshops. The agricultural sector has been damaged because of the war, and the rise in fuel prices. It has become a heavy burden to avail fuel for many families. Because of these conditions, many husbands abandoned their families and travelled abroad with the hope of later reunion. Some succeeded and some failed and their families remained without a support provider.  Some families forced their underage girls to get married as a first or a second wife because of poverty, displacement and the scarcity of education chances for girls in most areas.

As a result of collapsed economy after years of war and unprecedented overblown population, Idlib Province has become very similar to Gaza Strip in Palestine. Many social problems started to appear. The larger numbers of orphans, widows and the disabled has reached a horrible percentage. These vulnerable communities are consumptive and not productive at all. They have become a heavy social burden on society. These very complicated social and economic situations caused dangerous social phenomena like underage marriage and high rating arbitrary divorce. Not all marriages and divorces are registered in the civil administrations. Poverty and hopelessness pushed many families to encourage their girls to get married as school truancy rate rose up.    

Another dilemma has appeared when a larger number of Syrian girls got married to unidentified foreigners who illegally came to the country to take part in the war. Those husbands either don’t have or don’t show their personal documents. These illegal marriages were not registered in the Civil Administration Offices. Many of these wives suddenly found themselves without husbands as some were killed in the war or went back home without any notice. Some of them disappeared unnoticed or moved to another area as per required for the battles. Some other husbands might have moved to another area and got married all over again with a new fraud name creating another social problem. Most wives were suddenly left with children or pregnancies. This has caused many social and psychological problems to those wives. They are neither widows nor divorced in the eye of their society from a legal and social perspectives. About 1124 illegally married women gave birth to about 1826 children out of 1750 unregistered marriages. These statistics were made by a local legal group of lawyers and activists. Muhammed Nour Humaidi, a judge, reported these numbers. He said that these cases of marriage to unidentified husbands make the marriage contract illegal and null according to legal and religious rules of marriage.       

This kind of marriage is characterized with instability as the husband is always on the move and it is not easy to take his wife and children with him. This badly affects the future of these children as they are, with the force of law, deprived from their rights to education, heritage, ancestry and other civil rights. The most dangerous thing is that husbands hide their real names and this makes marriage illegal because the husband’s name is very essential for marriage contract.  

Statistics show that the majority of these illegal marriages took place in Al Rakka Province and its countryside. This problem will have negative effects for decades to come. A child with unknown ancestry will be liable for criminal inclinations because of the social attitude towards him and his mother. Many mothers went of the Civil Registry to get their kids registered, but they failed. It is worth mentioning that Syrian Civil Law allows children with unidentified fathers to get Syrian nationality, but this needs a stable and credible legal system with legitimate executive authorities.

For these reasons, activists and lawyers launched a Hashtag #who_is_your_husband.

This campaign aims at raising awareness of people in the North of Syria of this phenomenon, which has become a real challenge and threat as it will have future consequences that are difficult to deal with.

Women Legal status & Absentees

Just like all institutions and public service facilities, courts, lawyers’ Syndicates and real estate registries have been exposed to sabotage either because of shelling and air raids or looting, burning and burglary. Insecure situation and the Regime’s harassment against lawyers and judges due to their support to the Revolution, many of these lawyers and judges fled the country. Likewise, some other lawyers and judges fled the opposition-held areas to the Regime’s area because they support the regime and they were harassed by revolution community. This situation created a big gap in the staff of judiciary authorities. A horrible chaos prevailed in the opposition-held areas. This coincided with another aspect of chaos represented in the military fractions controlling these areas. The voice of guns rebuffed and dominated the voice of law and legislative authorities. Every military group initiated new courts based on the interests of this group and its religious ideologies. These military entities brought novice religious figures to run courts. These new judges lacked the least qualification, experience and legal procedures. Specialized and qualified lawyers and judges were excluded under religious pretexts. These qualified staffers were accused of not abiding by Islamic legal systems. The ruling figures considered those legal figures as advocates of man-made laws at the expense of God’s legislations. These new legal bodies have been stumbling as many judges lack the knowledge and experience. Military leaders wanted to make up for this, so they put them to legal training courses of 15 days hoping that they would be able to run the courts, but it was in vain. To overcome difficulties, they employed some graduates of law to work as judge assistants and teach judges what to do. Some law graduates agreed and started working in these courts because of their bad economic situation.         

A lawsuit can not be solved in most cases. A claimant might be living in an area that is govern by a legal entity different from the ruling entity of the area where the defendant lives. They can be both claimants and defendants at the same time without any consideration of the spatial competence of courts. These complications made people hesitant to make any lawsuit. Instead, focal persons and social figures started to play an important role in settling disputes depending on a mixture of laws, traditions and customs with slight differences according to the norms of the area. This led to the loss of people’s rights. Another issue is that there is no legitimate executive authority to support the decisions of courts. A defendant can simply move to another area to escape the conviction or sentence because the area is dominated by a different military entity and a different legal system.   

Following the establishment of Salvation Government in November 2017, ministry of justice was initiated as part of this government. This ministry immediately issued the so called “Jurisdiction Fees”, This new legislation imposed intolerable taxes on lawsuits that are 100$ on average for each lawsuit. Other taxes were imposed on the execution of judicial decisions. These fees should be paid in advance. The money collected through these judicial procedures went to the pockets of cabinet of the government. They divide this money among themselves according to their influence. What made the situation worse is that the Syrian Interim Government doesn’t have a ministry of justice.  

The catastrophic thing is that most juries and courts fortify themselves in prisons which has caused many Russian airstrikes on these headquarters. Mua’aret Al Nua’man prison was attacked by Russian warplanes and about 50 prisoners were killed under rubbles. Another issue facing the judicial system is the loss of property documents as we discussed earlier in this study. The contents of Real Estate Registry and courts, or because the demolition of civilians’ houses that has caused annihilation of these documents as they have been buried under rubbles.  

To mitigate the suffering of civilians in this concern, the Association of Free Syrian Lawyers, an independent, non-governmental organization, started a project named: “Legal Clinics” which seeks to spread the legal culture and awareness among citizens. They have been offering free legal consultancies to citizens. This association also started a new project on legal arbitration and dispute settlement for free. The association also worked hard through Supporting the Oppressed Center to document and follow-up on all those who disappeared in the prisons of some military groups. Lawyers working with SOC provide judicial pleading in courts of military groups if they, especially HTSH, admit the prisoner.    

Human Rights

What is happening in Syria has been characterized with large scale violations of human rights everywhere in the country. Idlib is one of the areas that have been subject to tense and violence. Since the deployment of Assad’s Armed Forces, horrible massacres have been spotted. Assad’s soldiers have committed unprecedented crimes against civilians like torture, killing, burning people alive. All brutalities known to humanity have been experienced. This provoked criminal culture. Social disunity has dominated all social conflicting fractions whether they belong to the opposition or the Regime and even among members of the same group.

After Assad’s Forces were defeated and swept from Idlib, Al Fateh Army took over. Al Fateh Army is a combination of military groups including Ahrrar Al Sham, Al Nusra, Jund Al Aqsa etc. Soon, secret detention centers spread with all military fractions. Al Nusra comes first in this regard. Ahrrar Al Sham comes next. Apostacy theories and ideological lining up pushed every party to accuse the other one of apostacy under different titles like Khawarej (those who go astray) and apostates. Every party justified its brutalities and violation of human rights. Leaders and religious figure of each party filled the minds of militants with these deadly concepts that encourage bloodshed of the others. Leaders of each party convinced his followers that the other party will devastate them unless they terminate that party.

Consequently, violence and counter violence have been normalized, and kidnapping, torture, abduction for ransom, assassination, torturing detainees, confiscating private cash and in-kind properties and imposing tributes have all become part of their culture. Assassinations and robbery have prevailed and unidentified dead bodies have been seen everywhere as a result of explosions or gun fires by masked men.    

Detainees have been deprived of their rights to just trials or calling witnesses. Their parents and families are not even allowed to visit them. Sometimes it is not possible to know who detains them and where they are detained. Many fathers mysteriously disappeared and left their wives and children without any support. No NGOs are supporting these families. These practices caused a lot of suffering for women and children. Some “lucky” detainees were executed and their dead bodies were handed over to their families. Others were just found dead on roadsides or in the woods. In brief, we can say that all imaginable horrors have been experienced in Idlib Province. Some lawyers and activists have been threatened because they wanted to shed light on these sufferings and violations. They themselves might become “legal targets” for these criminal entities. Some media men and human rights activists mysteriously disappeared. Humanitarian workers and medical staff were not an exception. Some doctors were kidnapped for ransoms. It has become a horrible risk to go out by car during the night.   

Life has become intolerable in Idlib Province. Civilians have become easy preys for godfathers of war, criminals and human rights violators in the absence of any legitimate authority or judicial system or executive entities that respect human rights. For all the above-mentioned circumstances, some voices are now proclaiming the need for a Turkish military intervention to terminate this chaos that overwhelms the opposition-held areas.   

Military Situation and War Godfathers

Just after the Regime’s forces were swept from Idlib Province in April 2015, Al Fateh Army which was a combination of Ahrrar Al Sham, Al Nusra and Jund Al Aqsa started governing the liberated areas in terms of security, military and public services. These military groups divided booties, and control according to power balance. Idlib Province has gone through many phases of military domination. Ahrrar Al Sham and Al Nusra alternatingly controlled everything until end of 2017 when Al Nusra expelled Ahrrar Al Sham from many areas next to the border with Turkey including Bab Al Hawa Crossing border and many other areas. Ahrrar Al Sham was jammed in some parts of Idlib Southern Countryside. HTSH controlled all areas of the province regarding security, military and economics. It is worth mentioning that HTSH abducted arms of many other Free Syrian Army fractions before its war against Ahrrar Al Sham.   

When Turkey started deployment of its military observance points, many HTSH leaders and religious figure were exposed to assassination. Most of those assassinated were against Turkish Intervention in the North of the country. Turkey went on deploying its military observance points agreed in Astana agreement. Patrols of HTSH accompanied the Turkish military processions. In February 2018, the “Olive Branch” military operation was launched by both Turkish Army and some of FSA groups that had fled the country because of HTSH domination and pressure. HTSH decided to cooperate with the Turkish Army to avoid any involvement of the FSA groups in Idlib Province. “Olive Branch Operation went on until all PKK and PYD fighter were expelled from Efreen area.  

Olive Branch Operation coincided with the advance made by the Regime’s forces in Hama Northern Countryside and Idlib Southeastern countryside as well as some parts of Aleppo Southwestern Countryside. The Regime Forces did not face any resistance. Assad’s Forces arrived in Abu Dhuhoor town and airport. This airport is of big importance. Tens of villages and towns in the area were exposed to fierce air strikes and artillery missiles. These attacks by the Regime and its allies cause a huge influx of displacement. IDPs moved to the border area neighboring Turkey. At this point, a new military alliance was formed by Ahrrar Al Sham, Nour El Deen Al Zenki Movement and Sham Falcons. The new alliance “Syria Liberation Front” became a new power. Afterwards. Battles started between SLF and HTSH in Aleppo Western countryside and Jabal Al Zawia area in Idlib Countryside. There were also battles to the North in Hazano and Mua’aret Musreen. HTSH was about to collapse when Turkistan Fighter intervened and captured Mua’aret Musreen to the North of Idlib City.   

As for Jabal Al Zawia in Idlib Countryside, fierce battles were fought between Ahrrar Al Sham on the one hand and HTSH on the other hand. SLF captured Ariha and Mua’aret Al Nua’man and some other parts in Jabal Al Zawia. In Aleppo Western Countryside, clashes went on with intervals between Al Zenki Movement and HTSH. The battle has not been decided yet, but HTSH is becoming weaker and weaker every other day despite the fact that some of its forts are still there in some areas of Jabal Al Zawia like Kansafra, Muhambel and some other smaller villages. In some cities like Sarakeb, HTSH withdrew without fighting. Failak Al Sham, a Turkey-supported military group remained away from any fight.
More pressure was imposed on HTSH to leave Bab Al Hawa strategic area, a bargain was negotiated to surrender the area in favor of Failak Al Sham. But, Nour El Deen Al Zenki Movement refused and undecided battles continued. It is widely believed that the next target for any Turkish military action will be against HTSH in order to complete the deployment of Turkish Army and control the whole province of Idlib.

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