Syria students say jihadists waging war on their future


Idlib (Syria) (AFP)

In Syria's jihadist-controlled Idlib province, Mudar Darwish and fellow medical students clutched banners and chanted against the closure of their university.

"Our future is being wasted because of unfair decisions against our university," Darwish told the crowd gathered in the northwestern region.

"We won't allow it," said the 28-year-old with a short beard, who has been protesting against the closure of his university in the town of Maaret al-Noman.

Jihadists dominating Idlib have come under increased criticism in recent weeks after they shut down a series of universities in their stronghold.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group led by Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate, has closed down a dozen universities since January, in a bid to bring them under its control.

The so-called Salvation Government, an HTS-dominated body administering Idlib and its eponymous capital, said the move serves to regulate higher education.

The degrees offered by Idlib's universities, including the Maaret al-Noman university, are not recognised abroad, but they can facilitate employment within the province.

Darwish said the closure of the Maaret al-Noman university will deal a blow to "the future of 1,700 students".

The 28-year-old student suggested the jihadist administration in Idlib was trying to turn the universities into a cash cow.

"We used to pay a tuition of no more than $300 and we can't afford to pay $1,800 for universities" accredited by HTS, he said.

- 'Uni for money' -

Reda Omari, a 23-year-old nursing student, expressed a similar sentiment.

"The Government of Salvation's universities are commercial enterprises," said the young man, wearing a leather jacket and his hair gelled back.

"They're just 'uni for money'," he said.

Idlib is the last major region outside government control in northwest Syria.

HTS took administrative control of the whole of the Idlib region in January, after overpowering smaller factions that are backed by Turkey.

As it expands in the province, so does hostility towards its iron-fisted rule, especially as it moves to tighten its hold on universities previously outside its control.

After two weeks of rallies in Maaret al-Noman, students moved their protest to Idlib city, where they gathered around the so-called Council of Higher Education, a body linked to the Salvation Government.

They raised banners, chanted slogans against the council's president and blocked access to its main headquarters.

Jihadists quickly swept in to curb protests.

After the first rally, HTS erected checkpoints to prevent more students from Maaret al-Noman and the nearby town of Ariha from joining demonstrations.

They threatened to arrest students if demonstrators did not disperse.

Majdi al-Husni, the head of the Council of Higher Education, said he understands why students are angry but stressed the need for uniformity across Idlib's educational sector.

He said the council aims to "supervise" the educational sector and harmonise the curriculum to ensure "quality education" in regions controlled by HTS.

"University programmes don't have to be 100 percent identical, but there has to be some consensus," he told AFP.

- Open-air classrooms -

He said the Salvation Government has granted accreditation to only eight universities.

"There are more than 13 educational institutions operating without the oversight of the Council of Higher Education... on a territory of barely 10,000 square kilometres", Husni added.

"This reflects badly on the reputation of higher education in the region," he said.

Protests in Maaret al-Noman have largely fizzled out in recent days but students and teachers continued to express anger at HTS.

In a sign of defiance, staff members at the faculty of medicine at the Maaret al-Noman university started teaching on the street outside campus.

Photos shared on social media networks showed students sitting in rows on plastic chairs, facing a white-haired man dressed in a medical gown.

The instructor used the sidewalk as a podium. Behind him, the university's facade is visible, including Koranic verses painted on its walls.

Heavy government shelling on the town, however, has disrupted these open-air classes.

Since September, Idlib has been protected from a massive regime offensives by a ceasefire deal brokered by regime ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey.

But sporadic regime bombardment has continued to hit the region, and hundreds of missiles have rained down on Maaret al-Noman in recent weeks.

With the closure of the university, "many young people will give up their studies to stay at home or look for work," fellow student Mohammed al-Shahud said.

"Our future is being thrown away," he said.