AMMAN: The students of Free Aleppo University satellite campuses in northeastern Idlib province sit on plastic chairs and piles of rocks in a field, scribbling notes in the bright sunshine as their professor lectures in front of them. A few meters away, their classrooms lie empty, the doors locked and guarded by armed men.
“We are continuing our education in front of the stolen buildings of our colleges,” says Hassan Obeid, a third-year college student from the north Idlib town of a-Dana.
Free Aleppo University’s handful of Idlib campuses are the latest battleground in a power struggle between rival opposition governments in northwestern Syria: the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) and the recently formed, HTS-backed Syrian Salvation Government (SSG).
For the past five days, students and professors at colleges and technical institutes belonging to Free Aleppo University in the towns of a-Dana and neighboring Sarmada have conducted a sit-in, continuing to study while refusing to heed the closure of their schools late last week by the recently formed Syrian Salvation Government (SSG).
The SSG was formed in Idlib in late 2017 with the aim of supplanting the existing opposition government. The SSG’s main rival, the Syrian Interim Government, was established in Turkey in 2013 as an alternative to the Assad government in Damascus.
Students and faculty gather for sit-in and classes outside in a-Dana on January 8. Photo courtesy of Free Aleppo University.
While the SSG describes itself as non-partisan and independent, the body is comprised largely of ministers and officials with connections to the hardline rebel coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS). Critics of the SSG describe the body as a front for HTS and its leading faction Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, formerly Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.
Since the SSG’s founding, it has consolidated control over the civilian administration of Idlib province and issued a number of rulings in line with HTS’s strict interpretation of Islamic law.
In mid-December, the SSG issued an ultimatum to all offices run by its rival, the Syrian Interim Government, to shut down. Shortly afterwards, HTS personnel began to enforce the SSG decision and raided ministries belonging to the relatively moderate SIG, the UK-based media outlet Al-Araby Al-Jadeed reported at the time.
As part of the SSG’s HTS-enforced consolidation of control, the fledgling government has also turned its sights on educational institutions in the areas that it controls.
Free Aleppo University (FAU) was founded by the SIG in December 2015 as an alternative to government-run universities. An estimated 7,000 students are currently enrolled in FAU, which has campuses in opposition-held territory across five provinces.
The SSG announced its control over FAU approximately three weeks ago and appointed a new president of the university. In response, the interim government moved the headquarters of Free Aleppo University from Idlib province to the west Aleppo countryside town of Bashqateen.
“We reject the seizure of university leadership and attempt to forcibly bring it under the Salvation Government’s Ministry of Education,” Abdelaziz al-Dagheem, the SIG Minister of Higher Education told Syria Direct this week.
Degrees from FAU are not recognized outside opposition-held territories, despite years of efforts by SIG education officials.
Since the SSG announced its takeover of FAU, students and staff at SIG-run institutions in northwest Syria have held multiple demonstrations against the SSG and in support of the Syrian Interim Government.
The recent closure of the FAU colleges of law, literature, information engineering and others in the Idlib towns of a-Dana and Sarmada—where almost 4,000 students study—began last Thursday, one day after students and teaching staff protested a visit by the SSG-appointed head of the university.
A video posted online on January 4 shows a large group of students chanting “get out,” and apparently forcing Ibrahim Hamoud, the SSG-appointed president of Free Aleppo University, to leave.
One day later, the SSG announced that classes at FAU were cancelled until January 14 “to preserve the safety of our students” amid a Syrian government ground offensive and bombing campaign in the south and southeast of Idlib province. The closure has since been extended to January 20, and expanded to include all educational institutions.
When students and staff showed up for classes in a-Dana and Sarmada last week, they found “masked, armed men preventing them from entering,” Abd el-Kafi, an FAU professor told Syria Direct on Tuesday.
A Free Aleppo University professor teaches class outside in a-Dana on January 8. Photo courtesy of Free Aleppo University.
The FAU campuses located in a-Dana and Sarmada lie in territory controlled by HTS, and, by extension, the Syrian Salvation Government. FAU colleges in the Free Syrian Army-held west and north Aleppo countryside are holding classes as usual.
The SSG Minister of Education, Jumaa al-Omar, told Syria Direct on Tuesday that the FAU campuses were closed due to airstrikes and confirmed “there are guards at the colleges.” He also asserted that the SSG education council is “in no way affiliated with Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham or any group.”
However, there have been no airstrikes or bombings in a-Dana or Sarmada for months, local sources told Syria Direct. Closing colleges in the absence of current bombings is also a break with protocol followed for the past two years, according to Professor Abd al-Kafi, a lecturer at FAU.
“Normally, we don’t close all the departments,” he said. “Just the ones in an area that is being bombed.”
Heavy fighting between government forces and opposition factions is taking place approximately 60km southeast of Sarmada and a-Dana.
Despite the closure of the colleges, students and professors have gathered nearby for the past five school days, holding a sit-in and continuing instruction outdoors.
“We are here to express our refusal of the decision to close the colleges, even temporarily,” said Abd al-Kafi.
“Everyone’s attending the lectures because final exams are coming up,” third-year student Hassan Obeid told Syria Direct. He asserted that students had been verbally threatened by the “guards” at the colleges, and that weapons had been fired into the air.
“Leave education out of politics,” reads graffiti dated to Monday, January 8 in a-Dana. Photo courtesy of Free Aleppo University.
“The SSG must be aware that the students refuse to follow it,” said Obeid. “It must not become a tool to destroy the future of education in our liberated area.”
Eight students and the dean of the College of Media in Sarmada were reportedly arrested at an HTS checkpoint this past Sunday following a verbal altercation with gunmen at the doors of their school according to Obeid. The students were later released, while the dean was held, according to a post on the Students of Free Aleppo University Facebook page.
Both the SSG Minister of Education and his SIG counterpart told Syria Direct this week that they disapproved of the politicization of education in northwestern Syria. Each held his rival counterpart responsible.
“Universities should not intervene in the conflict between the two governments, and yet Aleppo University has announced that it follows the interim government,” said the SSG’s al-Omar.
Al-Omar’s counterpart in the SIG, al-Dagheem, stated that he hoped “our colleagues on the other side will take their hands off of education and leave the universities to complete their work.”
For now, FAU campuses in northeastern Idlib remain closed, and classes continue outdoors.
“Unfortunately, political tensions have eclipsed students’ interests,” said FAU lecturer Abd al-Kafi.