In Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib, temporarily shielded from assault by a Turkey and Russia-backed buffer zone, schools have become the latest target of Islamist militants.

Parents and teachers interviewed by Asia Times say boys and girls who once attended class together are increasingly segregated into separate classrooms, with male teachers discouraged from teaching girls, and vice versa.

“After the children have passed the third grade of primary school, the girls are isolated from the boys and are forced to wear sharia-compliant dress (abaya). There are patrols of women affiliated with the Guardians of Religion group at the school gates to inspect clothing on a daily basis.

“Any girl who does not wear the abaya must return home immediately,” said one mother in the city of Jisr al-Shughour. “These rituals or beliefs seem very harsh for children of this age, but we are afraid to speak about this for fear of arrest or abduction,” she said. 

“Sometimes my children ask me, why do we play with our sisters at home but we are separated in school? As a mother, I cannot find an explanation or answer to these questions.”

The Guardians of Religion

The so-called Guardians of Religion group was formed in February 2018, bringing together hardline militants who opposed a decision by Idlib’s most powerful armed group – Hayat Tahrir al-Sham – to leave Al-Qaeda.

This splinter group, made up of mainly Asian foreign fighters numbering more than 1,500, also opposes any capitulation to agreements made by neighboring Turkey, Russia and Iran through the Astana process.

The Guardians are not at odds with the hardline group they split from, sharing the same puritanical ideology and close coordination in controlling Idlib city and many of its surrounding areas.

Despite an acute shortage of teachers, the Guardians of Religion have been pushing to forbid men from teaching girls, and vice versa, sometimes resulting in students being deprived of subjects. 

Mohammed al-Rabee, a pseudonym, who is a mechanic in the city of Saraqeb, says the Guardians have become increasingly heavy-handed in the running of local schools. 

“They have sent instructions discouraging male teachers from working at girls’ middle and high schools on the pretext of preventing any mixing between genders,” he said.

“Even in elementary schools, our daughters have been forced to wear the religious headscarf from age 10 or they will not be allowed to attend school.”

According to Rabee, this direct interference by the Guardians has pushed some families to keep their children home from school for fear their children will eventually join the organization.

“The problem is some children look up to the fighters and want to be like them when they grow up,” he said. 

The United Nations estimates that three million people live in Idlib, nearly half of them displaced from other parts of the country, whether by the conflict or surrender deals. 

“Most people are in a difficult situation. We can’t afford to put our children in private schools. I’m just a regular person. I can’t pay 6,500 Syrian lira (US$12) per month for private school fees,” said Rabee.

Teachers say they cannot argue with the militant group, who they fear could eventually interfere in the curriculum.

“The Guardians of Religion is the supreme authority in the city, controlling all aspects of life, and they impose their hard-line approach on defenseless civilians,” said Ibrahim Ibrahim, a teacher in Idlib city. 

“The most striking thing is the imposition of the abaya on girls as young as seven or eight, not allowing them to wear normal children’s clothes, and separating boys from girls in schools. Even the teachers are not exempted from these separations,” Ibrahim, another pseudonym, told Asia Times.

Under occupation

Idlib fell from Syrian government control three-and-a-half years ago to a coalition of Islamist factions. It is now the last province under opposition control. 

As the war has turned in favor of Damascus, Idlib has so far been spared an all-out assault. In September 2017, Turkey and Russia agreed in Sochi to make Idlib a “de-escalation zone.” Then, last month, the Astana partners agreed to create a “demilitarized zone” separating the province from government-held territory.

The Guardians of Religion rejected the latest agreement, which calls for “radical” groups to vacate the buffer zone, calling it a “conspiracy from the global forces of evil non-believers to eliminate the jihadist project.”

On the ground, the hardline group has been luring fighters from other factions and making its presence felt. 

The patrols sent into schools and shops to prosecute alleged offenses are mainly comprised of foreigners, residents told Asia Times, creating an added source of resentment.

A teacher in Idlib city, speaking on condition of anonymity, voiced her frustration. “First off, I hate racism. I am not a racist,” she began, “But to have an Asian person come in – not Syrian at all – and order me around at gunpoint … that’s occupation.”