The extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has begun targeting universities in northwest Syria, shutting down two institutions over the past few months and forcing students to abandon degrees that some had been working for years to achieve. It is another reminder of HTS’s brutality and influence over northwest Syria, following the group’s seizure of Idlib and the surrounding Aleppo countryside in January.
The closures began on 5 February when HTS fighters shuttered the International Rescue University (IRU) in Maarat al-Nu’man after its 1,100 students and administration staff refused to come under the group’s control and protested its influence.
Abu Faraj, a student at IRU, who uses a pseudonym to prevent reprisals from the group, says that when HTS first arrived at the university, his classmates rushed over to force them out. “We told them: ‘This is our university.’ They had to leave in the end to avoid clashes with the students.” Protests against the group spread to Idlib city but HTS blocked the roads to prevent more people from joining the demonstrations and forced protesters back. The students also spoke directly with HTS, asking it to reconsider, but were rebuffed.
“We are trying everything we can to save our university,” says Abu Faraj. “The majority of people oppose HTS and the rule of its civilian front, the Salvation Government. But it’s dangerous for us to oppose them. Civilians who protest against HTS are most likely to be targeted.”
A month later, HTS turned its attention to the Free Aleppo University, where more than 5,000 students were enrolled in degree programmes. As with the IRU, HTS wanted the university to come under the control of the Salvation Government, which now controls Idlib’s education sector, according to a report in the Syrian news site Al Jumhuriya (in Arabic).
The Free Aleppo University refused and professors began holding classes outside the university’s gates, prompting HTS to close institution for good at the end of March. HTS now controls the university’s various buildings and allegedly told administration staff to hand over student files and files related to the university as a whole.
According to Al Jumhuriya, the opposition Interim Government called on the Free Aleppo University to relocate to Azaz and Mare’ in north Aleppo countryside, which are under the control of Turkish backed factions. So far, teachers and students have refused to do so, fearing that the Interim Government doesn’t have their best interests at heart and because many are unable to move. The IRU did shift to a new facility in northern Idlib but few students have been able to follow.
More than two months on from HTS’s closure of the IRU and Free Aleppo University, the original campuses remain shuttered, with students like Abu Faraj unable to complete their degrees and gain the qualifications they hoped would offer them a better future. Faraj and his classmates join the hundreds of thousands of Syrians denied an education due to the relentless conflict and targeting of academic facilities by the regime and armed groups.