For ransom or for rule: Local aid workers describe risks amid wave of kidnappings in Syria’s rebel-held northwest

Customers buy food on a busy street in the centre of the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib on September 24, 2018. Photo by Omar Haj Kadour/AFP.

AMMAN: Saddam al-Muhammad was walking home from Friday prayers last month when he was bundled away and disappeared off the street in northwestern Idlib province’s Atma.

The local branch director of an Idlib NGO that provides housing, educational and medical services to thousands of civilians, al-Muhammad was allegedly abducted on October 12 by men believed to be affiliated with hardline Islamist coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), a source from his organization, the Ataa Association for Relief and Development, tells Syria Direct.

According to the source, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, HTS kidnapped al-Muhammad following a dispute between the NGO and the HTS-affiliated Directorate of Displaced Persons—a subsidiary of the hardline group’s Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) that governs areas under its control.

HTS-affiliated officials meanwhile deny any knowledge of the incident.

Al-Muhammad was later released on October 27, two weeks after he first disappeared.

One kidnapping among many, local aid organizations have since warned of halting Idlib operations, leaving countless civilians at risk of losing access to baseline services.

Al-Muhammad’s story is far from unique. A recent uptick in kidnappings across Idlib province has raised the stakes that local aid workers—and the organizations they work for—face while providing assistance to some of the estimated 3.5 million civilians now residing in Syria’s last major rebel-held stronghold.

Although a Turkish- and Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement staved off a pro-government offensive on the province in mid-September, the myriad factions and anarchic security conditions that prevail in the northwest mean no single party can realistically curb instances of kidnappings and arbitrary arrests by both armed factions and criminal groups.

While individual aid workers disappear, recent kidnappings are also impacting organizations themselves. At least two organizations have temporarily suspended work at local facilities in recent weeks amid security threats, and the sensitive issue of ransom-paying—whereby organizations pay ransoms to criminals and armed factions, some of them hardline Islamists—can pose an existential threat to organizations’ external funding, aid workers warn.  

Local aid workers, meanwhile, say the lack of security is making them question whether they should continue their jobs.

“For me, of course there is a big fear,” Ahmad, a 25-year-old aid worker in Idlib city tells Syria Direct, describing how the recent spate of kidnappings has heightened anxieties about his work.

Ahmad, along with other aid workers in Idlib quoted in this report, requested that his real name be withheld for fear of reprisals from local armed factions.

“If I felt that I was in imminent danger, of course I’d leave my work,” he admits. “I don’t want to break my mother’s heart.”

‘We cannot count them all’

An eleventh-hour diplomatic summit in September between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan saw the two leaders announce a 15- to 20-kilometer-wide “buffer zone” around Idlib province. The agreement appeared to stave off a looming pro-government offensive that UN officials and humanitarian organizations warned would have been catastrophic.

The majority of Idlib province—as well as bordering areas of eastern Latakia, northern Hama and western Aleppo provinces—are the last remaining territories under opposition control. A myriad of rebel groups control what remains: including factions under the umbrella of the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) as well as hardliners from HTS and smaller Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups.

The buffer zone surrounding Idlib, meanwhile, has seen bouts of violence between rebel groups and pro-government forces, adding uncertainty about whether the Russian-Turkish agreement can hold.

Rebel infighting within Idlib province is also commonplace.  

“The security situation is very bad, and nobody is responsible for security issues,” says Ahmad Dbis, director of safety and security at Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM), an NGO providing medical care to civilians in northwestern Syria.

“The area is controlled by many factions and you cannot control these areas [because of it],” he adds.

Aid workers from the Ataa Association. Photo courtesy of Ataa.

HTS wields authority over roughly 60 percent of Idlib and has significant local influence via its affiliated governance body, the SSG. The hardline group emerged out of Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate Jabhat a-Nusra.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights monitor recently recorded 184 instances of abduction and arbitrary arrest by HTS alone in the past two months—including aid workers, lawyers and other civil society figures—while an unknown number of other kidnappings for ransom have also been perpetrated by other factors and local criminal groups.

In one case, Idlib paramedic Alaa Alawi was reportedly kidnapped in northern Hama and held for a ransom of $200,000 by an unknown armed group. When his family was unable to pay the requested sum, his kidnappers were said to have tortured him and sent photos to his family.

Alawi works for Syria Charity, a Paris-based organization operating in Idlib and Hama provinces that provides aid and medical services to orphans residing there.

Alawi was later released, the Syria Charity announced via social media, though the organization declined to comment on whether it would curtail any of its Idlib operations, when contacted by Syria Direct.

The exact number of kidnapping cases that have occurred in Idlib in recent months is difficult to verify given the secretive nature of the operations, negotiations, ransom payments and releases that occur.

“We cannot count them all,” says one official from the Response Coordination Group, an NGO that documents service provision in Syria’s north. Even when the group is able to record kidnappings, the official adds, predictable patterns are hard to find.

“Each time it happens, the manner of the kidnapping is different,” the official tells Syria Direct.

An Idlib street in 2017. Photo courtesy of Idlib Media Center.

An impossible choice

Kidnappings and arbitrary arrests have left local aid organizations with an impossible choice: using their limited resources to pay ransoms for their employees, or depriving some of Syria’s most desperate civilians of much-needed services.

The temporary suspension of operations at both Ataa and the Syria Charity last month poses a real threat to civilians in northwestern Syria, where an estimated 3.5 million civilians reside—including over a million Syrians displaced north in a series of forcible evacuations deals that have allowed the Syrian government to reclaim much of the country since 2016.

Ataa’s temporary suspension risked impacting approximately 4,500 students and 250 displacement camp employees in the northern Idlib countryside, in addition to the average 150 cases that their clinic treats daily, according to an Ataa source.

Syria Charity meanwhile provided approximately 2,000 orphans with more than a dozen ambulances and two clinics before it temporarily halted work early last month, later warning that any suspension to operations would likely impact thousands of civilians.

UOSSM security director Dbis warns that kidnappings and abductions impact civilians because while “some organizations decide to stop their activities in some areas, [others] may stop all of their missions in Syria if it continues.”

For rule or for ransom?

An SSG official who spoke with Syria Direct denied any involvement by local HTS-affiliated authorities, despite accusations to that effect from local NGO workers.

When asked about the alleged dispute with Ataa, the director of the HTS-affiliated SSG’s Directorate of Displaced Persons Khaled a-Salibi told Syria Direct that his group’s relationship with Ataa is “very good.”

“Things are moving forward with good coordination and the department is seeking to settle any dispute,” a-Salibi added. “As for the organization’s suspension of work and its effect on the civilians…perhaps the matter was a mistake.”

“Regarding the detention of the director of the organization [Ataa],” a-Salibi adds, “I do not know anything about it.”

Aid workers on the ground meanwhile see incidents like al-Muhammad’s two-week disappearance as part of a broader effort by HTS and the SSG’s Directorate of Displaced Persons to impose their authority on NGOs across Idlib.

“HTS’ goal here is not so much to suspend organizations’ operations, but rather to pressure [them] to do what it wants—especially the organizations that haven’t accepted working under the umbrella of the Directorate of Displaced Persons,” says the Ataa source with knowledge of al-Muhammad’s kidnapping.

“Usually, in kidnapping operations...kidnappers don’t take people except those who have a leading role within the organization, or those that are in a sensitive position,” says aid worker Ahmad. “[The aim is] to pressure the organization and impact its work.”

Others, meanwhile, suggest kidnappers may simply be seeking ransom money.

“A humanitarian worker rarely is kidnapped or threatened because he’s a humanitarian worker,” says Suhaib Zakour, who works with the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Idlib. “Kidnapping is either for financial purposes or personal reasons.”

Despite being saved from an all-out offensive—for now—aid workers and the civilians they provide for in Idlib must still contend with an unstable and unpredictable environment often dictated by rebel factions and criminal groups.

Still, some say they are undeterred.

“There are always going to be fears for those working in the humanitarian field—whether it’s  from bombardments or attacks,” Zakour says.

“[Either way], this isn’t going to stop us.”

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Jodi Brignola

Jodi Brignola is a former Syria Direct intern and current trainee in Syria Direct’s Media Training Program. Jodi is a Masters candidate in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and is in Amman on a Boren Fellowship.