Universities in Idlib threatened by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham

The jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is trying to extend its control over Syria’s last anti-Assad stronghold and wants to impose its laws and ideology on the education system.

A student holding a banner at Maarrat al-Nu’man's International Salvation University. Photo Abdelaziz Ketaz

“Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has shattered the hopes of the revolution by seizing all our territories. They are real savages. They remind me of how the Islamic State (IS) started,” Bilal*, a journalist living in Idlib, said recently.

As IS expanded, it tried to dominate every aspect of life in areas under its control. Now, the formerly al-Qaeda affiliated group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is trying to bring the province of Idlib under its administrative control. Following a military campaign against the National Front for Liberation (NFL), a Turkish backed collection of rebel factions, at the beginning of January, it appears to have succeeded in becoming the sole leader of Syria’s last anti-Assad stronghold.

The group is ruling Idlib through its political wing, the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), which it created in November 2017 as a rival to the provisional government established by the exiled opposition in Gaziantep, Turkey. "HTS has created this sham government to control the local economy, services, justice, education and so on. When you control that, you control everything,” Haitham*, a Syrian scholar, said.

But as HTS imposes its control it is also breeding resentment among the population. After eight years of civil war, Syria is fragmented, and the last anti-Assad stronghold is now falling under the control of a totalitarian administration that, according to many, is no better than the regime. HTS is registering vehicles with the SSG and mandating owners of food shops obtain licenses. The group is even imposing its laws and ideology on the education system in the province of Idlib.

"We saw what they did at the University of Aleppo"

What better way to propagate its ideology and indoctrinate a new generation of jihadists than controlling education?. "We had to leave the university because of Bashar (al-Assad) in 2011, and today we might have to leave again because of HTS,” a student wrote on a WhatsApp group of journalists and activists.

All universities in Idlib province are facing a choice: accept HTS’s authority or close. The International Salvation University in the city of Maarrat al-Nu’man is trying to resist. The private institution hosts more than 1,600 students and has refused to comply with HTS’s requirements. "They came to tell us to close the university, but we refused because they have no reason to do so. We are not going to let them ruin our children's future,” Dr. Mazen Saoud, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, said via WhatsApp.

The university has a satellite campus in the neighboring city of Ariha and offers courses in more than 20 disciplines. For young people in the area, it is one of the few options they have to avoid the armed struggle going on around them. "It’s very important for us. We have the choice between psychology, medicine, political science, journalism, English, Turkish,” Ahmad*, a first year student in dentistry, said. “There are young people like me, but also some who are almost in their thirties who had to interrupt their studies because of the war.”

"We try to give a quality education in harsh conditions. This is not Switzerland or Great Britain. we must be realistic. We are in Syria. We have been living a war for the past 8 years,” said Dr. Saoud.

Last month, students of the university organized two sit-ins outside the campus’ bullet scarred building to protest HTS’s threats. “Our university will remain a sun of knowledge that no cloud can veil,” one sign read. Another said: “Our university is private, non lucrative and meets international standards.Why do you want to take it away?”

If HTS were to take over, the school would not provide the group with any financial benefit. "We do absolutely no profit. A year of medicine, the most expensive department... costs only $400. It's nothing compared to other universities,” Dr. Saoud argued.

"I work as a reporter to be able to afford the annual fee. But many rely on scholarships that the institution grants, such as the wives of prisoners or deceased fighters, but also the displaced and wounded,” Ahmad explained.

"They feel threatened by our school, a serious competitor to theirs, and that's why they want to shut us down. We saw what they did at the University of Aleppo,” Dr. Saoud said.

In December 2017, the SSG tried to take over the Free University of Aleppo. The school was created in 2015 by rebel groups in Aleppo province and was placed under the control of the Syrian National Council. Teachers and the students refused to obey HTS at the time and were forced to leave the school’s buildings.

"Who deserves to be killed? "

In a clear sign that it is not willing to negotiate, HTS released a statement last week threatening to close the university if it doesn’t obey the new rules. “We either belong to them or we leave,” Youssef*, a student in his final year of English literature, said.

If HTS takes over, the university would be forced to sever its ties with the interim government in Gaziantep, which would mean losing crucial support, including financial, from many Western countries. "If HTS controls us, we will never have international recognition,” Youssef worried.

"Imagine their signature on our degrees," another student said.

"Nobody wants to belong to this government because we know very well that it belongs to Jolani," added Haitham, referring to the leader of HTS and al-Nusra founder Abu Mohammad al-Jolani.

Universities already taken over by the jihadists offer a cautionary tale to the International Salvation University’s students. The University of Idlib, with 13,000 students, has been controlled by the SSG for two years. The administration blindly obeys HTS and its fighters. "Everywhere else the law and studies of Islam are two separate departments, but not at the University of Idlib. After all, Abu Fath al-Farghali teaches there, so this is not surprising,” said Haitham.

Abu Fath al-Farghali, an Egyptian-born scholar, is among the most important, and radical, religious figures in Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. He has nearly 10,000 followers on his Telegram account where he regularly issues fatwas and promises up to $100 to people who correctly answer questions about Islam.

Second-year students in the law and Islamic studies program at the University of Idlib are required to study the legal and religious aspects of jihad. L’Orient-Le Jour (OLJ) recently obtained a copy of one of their exams. It contained questions about the rights of prisoners, the treatment of spies and the spoils of war. "Even people who are extremely religious-savvy could have difficulties with these kinds of questions," said Haitham.

The exam included questions about the difference between suicide and martyrdom operations, the statuses of Christians and Alawites under jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims) and what people deserve to be subdued or killed. There was also a question about whether Islam allowed people to fight alongside Turkey. In the context of northern Syria, it was politically charged. The rest of the opposition is working with the Turkish army to fight the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish branch of the PKK, which Ankara considers a terrorist organization.

"More and more fear"

Just a few months ago, people in Idlib were openly expressing their opposition to HTS, but it is no longer possible to speak out against the group, especially while talking to journalists. "I was not afraid of them before, but things have changed,” Haitham explained.

HTS is quick to retaliate against its critics. "Even in the towns it has been controlling for a long time, the group does not have popular support. Many young people fled the country because of HTS just as others did because of Bashar. It has replaced the regime in its repressive behavior,” explained Oum Abdallah, a resident of Maarrat al-Nu’man.

"There is more and more fear, certainly. Already in 2017, when we demonstrated against HTS in Saraqeb calling for Jolani to leave, we were scared off. They have very powerful secret services and we know what they are capable of,” a Syrian journalist based in Idlib said.

"We refuse their intrusion. We have lived under a military regime for 55 years. We won’t end up under another,” Dr. Saoud added.

Maarrat al-Nu’man has a reputation for being openly hostile to the jihadist group and was among the last areas to fall under its control in recent weeks. Universities and schools are not the only institutions are are being threatened. The entire infrastructure of civil society is in danger. A committee of negotiators carefully chosen by the city’s residents is hoping to voice its grievances and to prevent HTS from setting up a permanent presence in the town.

Members of the negotiating committee said that the are approaching their interactions with the powerful jihadist group cautiously. A couple of years ago, HTS clashed with the rebel forces that ran the city. "We have already paid with blood. Today, we do not want to see it happen again," said a doctor who on the committee.

*Names were changed for safety reasons.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 28th of January)

“Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has shattered the hopes of the revolution by seizing all our territories. They are real savages. They remind me of how the Islamic State (IS) started,” Bilal*, a journalist living in Idlib, said recently. As IS expanded, it tried to dominate every aspect of life in areas under its control. Now, the formerly al-Qaeda affiliated group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is trying...