The last rebel-held enclave was meant to be a safe zone for three million displaced Syrians who fled government-controlled areas fearing arrest, torture or both.
But similar crimes are happening in Idlib province – although to a lesser extent than they have been committed in government-controlled territory – as well as in areas west of the Euphrates.
Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, also known as HTS, the former al-Qaeda affiliate which dominates Idlib and parts of west Aleppo, and some of the other rebel groups backed by Turkey in north Aleppo, have been accused by human rights groups of looting, extortion and torture.
An agreement between Russia, Turkey and Iran last September succeeded in shielding the province in northwestern Syria from an attack by the Syrian government, which would have likely been catastrophic. But the deal has not been sufficient to protect residents from a failing economy and the lawlessness in the enclave.
The daily lives of many civilians continue to be paralysed by collective fear that they may be picked up and tortured if they are unable to pay a ransom.
In some cases, rebel gangs have seized men to punish them for preferring a rival faction, while in others, the kidnappers have been motivated by money.
On September 4 last year, Mohammad Nour Hemedi, a retired judge, was shoved in a silver van by five masked men outside his farmhouse near Idlib city.
“They extracted my toe-nails,” he said. “I had never even heard about such torture.”
Recounting his 21-day ordeal, the judge said that he was given a bottle of water and fed a loaf of bread a day. Sometimes, when the captors felt charitable, he was given an apple.
He was forced to defecate in an open plastic container which stayed in his underground solitary cell for days on end.
They demanded a ransom of $300,000 but settled for $50,000, a hefty sum even for a judge’s family to put together.
Hemedi said that at least two of his friends, wealthier Syrians, were also abducted and released after paying a ransom of $120,000 each.
He did not say who abducted him, but said he was picked up in an area under the control of Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham.
Abdulghani Ramzi al Aryan, a local journalist, was kidnapped and thrown in a hen-house for 24 hours on January 1 this year in Salaqin in Idlib. “They hit me with their hands and feet and with the butt of their guns,” he said.
Aryan also said he did not know who kidnapped him but said that once before, in 2017, he was taken in by fighters from Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham for reporting on infighting with another group, Faylaq al-Sham.
Those abducted rarely reveal the names of the abductors, often because they fear retribution.
However, Human Rights Watch released a report in January and found Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham responsible for the kidnapping of at least eleven people, and the torture of six people.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights claimed that Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham has arrested 184 people in the last three months.
Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at HRW, said: “We have seen HTS use some of the same tactics as the Syrian government, such as illegal detentions and torture.”
She said that HRW defines Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham as an “extremist” group because of its affiliation with al-Qaeda in the past and because it is labelled as a terrorist organisation by the United States and Turkey.