In late 2021, the governor of Idlib announced that the administrations of the Idlib and Hama governorates were splitting, making Khan Sheikhoun the temporary administrative centre of the regime-held part of Idlib. Most of the Idlib governorate remains under the control of the hardline Islamist opposition group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham. The announcement came alongside an official media campaign encouraging displaced Khan Sheikhoun residents to return to the city, which has an official administrative headquarters but still lacks some basic public services.
Since opposition forces captured the city of Idlib in 2015, the Syrian government has run its Idlib governorate branches and directorates in alternative “workspaces” in Hama governorate branches and directorates, so that people still living in regime areas could keep up with their official transactions. These workspaces included the electricity and health directorates, the Civil Registry, Cadastral Affairs, and others, as well as official bank branches. Meanwhile, both governorates maintained their own budgets and administrative structures.
According to the governor of Idlib, the process of transferring those temporary Idlib governorate workspaces from Hama to Khan Seikhoun is now being completed. This process began in May 2020 with the opening of the Baath Party’s Idlib branch headquarters in Khan Sheikhoun alongside a headquarters for the Idlib governorate and a local police command. Afterwards the health and electricity directorates, technical services, and branches of the Farmers’ Union branches and Agricultural Bank were also moved to Khan Sheikhoun. Most of these bodies are now located in the buildings of former official headquarters, schools, and even some confiscated civilian homes, such as the Idlib Police Command, the Traffic Police, Electricity Department, and Water Unit.
During his most recent visit to Khan Sheikhoun in December 2021, Prime Minister Hussein Arnous said that the funds allocated to Idlib governorate for 2022 were quadruple the 2021 funds, with the aim of rebuilding infrastructure and services. He added that the executive and political headquarters had moved to Khan Sheikhoun.
Khan Sheikhoun is the third largest city in the Idlib governorate after Idlib city and Maaret Al-Numan and is located along the administrative border with Hama governorate, intersected by the M5 Aleppo-Lattakia highway. Regime forces recaptured Khan Sheikhoun on August 23, 2019, displacing nearly 30,000 residents to the opposition-held northern parts of the governorate. Only around 100 families currently live in the city, most of them in the eastern Al-Bireh neighbourhood.
Mr Arnous alluded, albeit not clearly, to the role of civil society and international organisations in rehabilitating Khan Sheikhoun, saying he would “direct the organisations to support” the process. His words came amid the official media’s focus on the activities of the Idlib governorate, which it described as encouraging residents’ return.
But contrary to the media campaign, Khan Sheikhoun, especially its western and northern neighbourhoods, still lack some basic services, according to a local correspondent for The Syria Report. Most of the streets are unpaved, sewers are exposed and damaged, and garbage and debris remains out in the open. In addition, some residents have been unable to obtain the necessary security permits to live in the city, which has barred them from receiving aid. No public transportation means that children must walk several kilometres through the debris to reach the only existing elementary school, which is in the Al-Bireh neighbourhood, the correspondent said.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the Charitable Society for Social Development (one of very few NGOs working in the regime-held part of the Idlib governorate) focus their work on Khan Sheikhoun and the town of Al-Tah, the birthplace of the Syrian Prime Minister. The Charitable Society has recently distributed so-called “productivity grants,” consisting of sheep and livestock feed provided by UNHCR, to some Khan Sheikhoun and Al-Tah residents. The Red Crescent also periodically distributes food baskets to residents and returnees.