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Idlib’s de facto authorities issue new ID cards: A ‘temporary solution’ or more chaos? 

For residents of northwestern Syria, juggling multiple identification documents for different authorities administering the country’s last opposition-held territories is a headache, and a fact of life. 

22 September 2022

IDLIB — Sireen Saadedin (a pseudonym), a resident of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)-controlled Idlib province, will soon apply for her third personal identification card. 

She already has one ID issued by Turkish-backed opposition authorities in northern Aleppo province, and another issued by the Syrian regime. Now, after the HTS-backed Syrian Salvation Government—the de facto authority where she lives—announced it would start issuing its own ID cards and opened applications last week, she will have to apply for yet another. 

Registration for Salvation Government-issued ID cards began on September 17, with five centers open in Idlib city and its countryside for applicants. At a press conference last week, the Salvation Government’s Interior Minister, Mohamed Abdelrahman, said the new IDs aim to address “many problems and challenges” in its areas of influence. These include “documentation difficulty when concluding marriage contracts, sale and purchase contracts and real estate transactions, as well as disputes before the judiciary,” he said. 

In theory, the new Salvation Government ID takes the place of those issued by other authorities in Syria’s northwest. But for a number of the area’s estimated four million residents, half of whom are internally displaced, their other documents—particularly those issued by Turkish-backed opposition institutions in northern Aleppo—are indispensable. 

Sireen left the al-Tadamon neighborhood of south Damascus in 2014 with her son after the regime detained her husband. She currently lives in Hazano, a town in the HTS-controlled northern Idlib countryside. But to receive her monthly salary as a field official with a civil society organization headquartered in Turkey, in 2019 she had to obtain a personal ID card issued by the Jenderes District Local Council in the Afrin countryside, which is affiliated with the Ankara-backed Syrian Interim Government (SIG). 

The ID was a prerequisite to open a bank account with the Turkish Post (PTT), which operates in areas of the Aleppo countryside controlled by the Ankara-backed Syrian National Army (SNA). 

On top of that, Sireen carries a card issued by the organization she works with. It is not an official document, but a form of identification that “helps me pass through military checkpoints” between HTS areas in Idlib and SNA areas in northern Aleppo, she said. 

Sireen Saadedin’s documents. Counter-clockwise from the top right: a family ledger issued by the Salvation Government, an identification card from the organization she works for, a family ledger issued by the Damascus government, a regime-issued personal ID card and a PTT bank card.

Having to carry multiple forms of personal identification in a single part of Syria is bothersome, Sireen said, but she has no other option. The Jenderes local council ID entitles her to access services in areas of Turkish influence. And her regime-issued documents, “even if they are expired, I might need them in the future,” she said. 

One month before Sireen’s husband was arrested in 2014, he bought a house in al-Tadamon. But she fled to northwestern Syria before documenting the purchase with the relevant government institutions, and has no proof of ownership except for “the sale contract and water and electricity bills,” she said. “I hold on to them in the hope that these papers will help prove my rights and confirm our ownership in future.” 

Chaotic recognition

The identification documents residents of northwestern Syria carry are not recognized outside the borders of the opposition-held area, or in asylum countries. Worse, these documents are not recognized within different areas of influence in the same part of Syria. The Salvation Government in Idlib does not recognize documents issued by the SIG in the northern Aleppo countryside, and vice versa. 

“I have three professional licenses: issued by the regime, the Salvation Government, and the [SIG] Idlib Health Directorate,” Muhammad Khair al-Ali (a pseudonym), a dentist in Idlib, told Syria Direct. “I struggle with a jumble of papers and how many there are, as I move about between Idlib and the Aleppo countryside.” Frustratingly, “each side refuses to recognize documents issued by the other, in the same country.” 

Al-Ali holds a permanent license to practice dentistry, which he received from the Damascus government in 2007. “Under the license, I have the right to practice the profession in all parts of the Syrian Arab Republic, but it wasn’t recognized by the Idlib Health Directorate,” he said. Accordingly, he had to obtain a new license from the SIG-affiliated directorate. 

Then, in mid-June, the Salvation Government’s Health Ministry requested that medical professionals and workers in its areas obtain licenses from the Ministry within a three-month period from the date of the decision. The move canceled recognition of professional licenses issued by the SIG’s Idlib Health Directorate. 

Al-Ali compared the situation of people in northwestern Syria to the cars in the area. “A single car has multiple license plates, and nobody recognizes them,” he said. “We’re like that: Nobody recognizes us and our documents globally, until today.” 

A car in Idlib with two license plates: a Syrian regime-issued license plate on the right, and one issued by opposition institutions in the northern Aleppo countryside on the left, 18/5/2022 (Mahmoud Hamza)

In June, Ahmad al-Othman was issued a traffic ticket while driving through SNA areas of the northern Aleppo countryside. His violation was not carrying a driver’s license issued by one of the local councils in the SNA area, even though he holds a regime-issued driver’s license that is recognized in Salvation Government areas. 

Al-Othman lives in the Atma camps near the Turkish border in the HTS-controlled northern Idlib countryside, after being displaced from his hometown in Jabal al-Zawiya in 2020. But for his work as a truck driver, he travels between HTS and SNA areas. 

He says he told the officers at the Afrin checkpoint who wrote him the ticket that he was driving on a license issued by the regime and had no problems in Idlib. One told him to “get a license from one of the local councils in SNA areas,” he told Syria Direct

Hassan al-Mustafa, the head of the media office at the local council in Jarablus, an SNA-held city, said “people who do not carry ID cards issued by the local councils in the Aleppo countryside cannot move between the areas, and they are subject to being stopped at the military checkpoints.” He told Syria Direct “the council does not recognize the personal ID or family ledger [a booklet containing official records of births, deaths, marriages and other civil status information] issued by the regime.” 

Therefore, a person living in SNA areas must “obtain personal ID cards issued by the local councils to access civil and medical services within SNA areas,” al-Mustafa explained. 

Local councils issue IDs to civilians “based on the personal ID or civil registration issued by the regime,” he said. If these documents are not available, the ID “can be obtained by bringing proof of residence from the mukhtar [local neighborhood head], or two witnesses who hold personal ID from the same council and live in the area, to prove the identity of and sponsor the individual with the council.” Additionally, obtaining the card depends on “the result of the security check” by the SNA. 

But the northern Aleppo’s local councils do recognize some regime documents, such as university degrees, and rely on them to “grant professional licenses issued by the relevant authorities in SNA areas, such as the Health Ministry or Education Directorate,” al-Mustafa said. 

‘Preserving rights’

On a personal level, Fahd al-Musa, a lawyer who lives in Binnish city in HTS-controlled northeastern Idlib, knows the trouble that overlapping and contradictory documents in the area can cause. He says he faced harassment from one Idlib judge “when he learned that I am a member of the Free Syrian Lawyers Association in the SNA areas, and don’t belong to the Idlib Lawyers Association,” he told Syria Direct

Even so, in his view the IDs and other documents issued by controlling parties in northwestern Syria are a “basis for preserving rights,” especially for displaced people “who left their homes forcibly, suddenly and en masse, without their personal documents.” Salvation Government and SIG documents “don’t constitute chaos, but are a temporary solution to facilitate marriage, divorce and work licenses, and could have a legal status in the future,” he said. 

Abdulnasser Houshan, a lawyer and Turkey-based board member of the opposition Hama Free Bar Association, said the ID cards issued by the Salvation Government and SIG in Syria are “recognition cards, not personal [ID]] cards, because they don’t grant citizenship to their holders, and don’t change their civil status.” Both bodies “do not have international legal standing, and any action by them has no impact on the civil status of Syrians.” 

Still, issuing documents is a “necessary and positive measure,” he said, especially given the presence of “a generation of Syrians displaced to northern Syria, who have not received any documents proving their Syrian identity. But the authorities on the ground, the Salvation Government and SIG, should “cooperate and coordinate with each other, and facilitate the handling of documents issued by each.” 

Issuing ID cards is also “a necessary means of investigating crimes committed by unknown persons, because the identity includes the holder’s fingerprint, picture and personal data—information that can be used in investigations,” Houshan said. 

But the efficacy of documents issued by opposition institutions in northwestern Syria ends at the border, when residents seek refuge in neighboring countries or Europe. 

Alaa Fatrawi, a media activist, left Idlib for Germany in late 2020 under an asylum grant that a number of media activists benefited from at the time. He took his personal documents with him, including “a family ledger issued by the Salvation Government in Idlib, and a driver’s license issued by the Syrian regime,” he said. He provided both to German authorities, but they “didn’t recognize the family ledger, as it was issued by an unrecognized party, and asked me to get a ledger from the [Syrian] consulate in Berlin,” he told Syria Direct

Meanwhile, German authorities “recognized the driver’s license issued by the regime, and I bought a car under it as soon as I arrived,” he said. 

But in northwestern Syria, holding on to a jumble of occasionally contradictory documents is still important. Doctor al-Ali keeps his “as if they were one of my children,” he said. And Sireen is holding on to her own archive of documents, considering them part of herself and her history. While cleaning her house recently, she found “an old civil record—it had gotten wet, and the water erased its contents, but I’ve still kept it.” 


This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson. 

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