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Thefts on rise in Idlib amid rising poverty

Hardly a day goes by in Idlib areas without a civilian being robbed of a car, motorcycle or other property, triggering yet more fears and concerns for residents.

IDLIB, Syria — Robberies have been on the rise in Syria’s opposition-controlled areas, be they controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham or the Turkey-allied Free Syrian Army factions. But lately, robberies have multiplied in the Idlib areas controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and have become an almost daily occurrence, sparking fears and concerns among civilians, amid rampant unemployment and price hikes in those areas. Robberies have exacerbated civilians’ already tough circumstances.

Ibrahim Hamdan, 58, was displaced from Aleppo’s southern countryside and now lives in a camp in the Idlib countryside. He told Al-Monitor, “I have a big family of eight, and I drive a 1998 Hyundai pickup truck. I use the pickup to sell livestock. One day, while I was heading to the livestock market in al-Bardaghli town in the Idlib countryside, I parked on the side of the road and locked the vehicle. I left $500 inside it, and I entered the market for about one hour. When I returned, the pickup was gone. My heart almost stopped because of the shock. I started screaming and asking if anyone spotted the vehicle, but nobody answered. I realized it had been stolen. I went to the police station that is affiliated with the Syrian Salvation Government and filed a complaint. It has been around five months, and I still haven’t found it. I lost the $500 and the car, which costs around $3,300. I have nothing left to make ends meet. It was all we had, and we lost it in a moment.”

Samer Omar, 33, who was displaced from the Hama countryside and now lives in Banash in the Idlib countryside, told Al-Monitor, “About three months ago, I went to the grocery store in the market in Banash city. I parked my motorcycle in the market. I kept my eyes on it for fear of robbery. As soon as I paid the grocer and headed back, I could not find it. I still haven’t found it. I filed a complaint at the Banash police station, but they could not identify the thief. My cousin had a similar experience. When it was his turn at the dentist, the thief took advantage and stole his motorcycle, although he had installed an alarm to protect it from theft.”

Khaled Salem, 65, a car seller from Sarmada in the Idlib countryside, told Al-Monitor, “Car theft gangs are professional. They distribute tasks among each other. Some watch the victim as soon as he gets out of the car, while others follow him to make sure he entered his destination. They inform the others who turn the car on without arousing suspicion in crowded areas, such that people cannot differentiate between the thief and the car owner. The robbers then drive the car to a destination that is usually in rural areas, out of sight. They change the car’s features to make it unidentifiable. For example, they paint it another color, from white to blue perhaps. They eliminate any distinctive signs on it, like broken pieces, scratches or dysfunctions. Then, they sell it in a remote area. Say they stole it from Idlib, they sell it in al-Bab in the Aleppo countryside, and so on.”

Local news websites reported that on Jan. 20, Idlib experienced the largest crime spree yet, which involved the robbery of several stores in the Saliba market in the city center.

Although armed robberies appeared to have decreased in recent months, a number of them were reported recently. Local newspapers in Idlib said a minivan was stolen at gunpoint. The armed men forced the driver to step out of the minivan on the Harbanush-Idlib road, and they drove away.

Mohannad Darwish, a media activist who lives in Idlib, told Al-Monitor, “We must distinguish between abductions and robberies. In general, abductions aim at asking for a ransom, and those significantly decreased in Idlib areas. However, the widespread crimes are those related to robberies, especially of motorbikes, cars, stores and even houses. This type of crime is linked to the deteriorating situation and tough living circumstances in the area. Poverty and lack of jobs are the main causes of theft. Besides, the ruling authorities’ leniency in punishment does not help. The worse the living circumstances, the more the crime and theft rates, notably with the lack of real opportunities for young people and the increasing life needs during winter, such as heating.”

He added, “Halting robberies requires more transparency in dealing with such gangs from the security apparatus affiliated with the military factions. It also requires seriousness from the judicial authorities and painful, public rulings to deter criminals. However, this isn’t the case at the moment." He said the media often will not disclose criminals' names or publish photos of their faces, further adding to a lack of accountability.

He said that abductions and theft are on the rise in Idlib, but that the area is still much better in terms of crime compared with areas under the control of the Free Syrian Army in the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch areas.

Darwish said it is much easier to control crime in Idlib because of the centralized security forces in the hands of one faction — that is, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham — as opposed to the Free Syrian Army-controlled areas, where multiple factions handle the security situation.

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