On October 15, pro-regime media reported that 800 displaced families had returned to Maaret Al-Numan, located in the rural Idlib governorate. A ceremony was reportedly held for their return, attended by state and Baath Party officials. But when the ceremony ended, most returning families left the destroyed city, according to a correspondent for The Syria Report in the area, as extensive damage to homes and infrastructure has rendered Maaret Al-Numan uninhabitable.
Maaret Al-Numan is located in the southern part of Idlib and is the governorate’s second-largest city after its eponymous capital. Opposition forces held the city from 2012-2020. During this time, some residents moved to live in regime-held areas in the nearby coastal governorates and Hama. Then in 2020, the regime waged a military campaign on the southern part of Idlib governorate, regaining control over several major cities such as Saraqeb and Maaret Al-Numan. The campaign caused all remaining residents of Maaret Al-Numan to flee north to displacement camps in opposition-held territory.
Since then, the pro-Russia 25th Special Mission Forces Division has controlled the emptied-out city, running it as a military zone because of its proximity to lines of contact with rebel forces in the southern Idlib governorate. The division has barred displaced Maaret Al-Numan residents from returning home to the city, even those living in regime-controlled areas of Syria. As in other areas of rural southern Idlib, work crews contracted by the regime forces have looted homes in Maaret Al-Numan, extracting whatever materials they could recycle, such as iron roofing.
According to The Syria Report’s correspondent, the Idlib governorate had transported displaced Maaret Al-Numan residents who gathered in Al-Assi Square in the city of Hama to their home city to participate in the return ceremony on October 15. Most of the families included Baath Party members and army personnel.
The Idlib governor and Idlib’s Baath Party branch leader participated in the ceremony, which was meant to open what they called a “reception centre for citizens returning to the city of Maaret Al-Numan.” They said the centre was opened to ease the return of the city’s displaced residents. A Syria Report correspondent reported that one of the centre’s tasks is to grant returnees security approvals after settling their security and military conscription statuses.
The governor said those wishing to return and live in the city could visit the reception centre and apply for return. He added that the centre will collect data on those people before approving them return. This data, he said, is necessary to secure essential services for returnees.
During the ceremony on October 15, the governorate utilised heavy machinery to remove rubble and clear public roads under the supervision of the 25th Special Mission Forces Division. However, according to The Syria Report’s correspondent, the day’s rubble removal was merely propaganda to shoot a promotional video and halted immediately afterwards.
A large-scale return of residents to Maaret Al-Numan does not yet appear possible amid the sheer destruction to the city, including to its water, sewage and electrical networks, as well as the remaining rubble and other debris.
On October 19, a government delegation visited the city. The group included the Minister of Local Administration and Environment and the Minister of Public Works and Housing. Official media reported that the delegation viewed the city’s situation and oversaw the restoration of essential services, rubble removal and repair of damaged roads. The delegation reportedly also identified and estimated the scope of the damages and determined the city’s most urgent needs to facilitate the return of displaced residents to their homes.
According to official statements, electricity will likely not return to the city before the end of 2022. Schools must also undergo repairs before reopening. The water network needs testing to find any defects, as facilities were damaged and shut down for long periods due to the fighting.
During the delegation’s visit to Maaret Al-Numan, the governor of Idlib stated that he had sent a memorandum to the council of ministers that included a study on requirements for restoring services such as electricity, water and healthcare to the city. The governor added that the services will be restored once the necessary funding is allocated.
Officials from Baath Party and Idlib governorate held a meeting on October 9 in Hama alongside Maaret Al-Numan private economic actors, to encourage the latter to participate in efforts to restore the city’s infrastructure and public facilities. Afterwards, the “Committee to Facilitate the Return of Maaret Al-Numan Residents,” formed by the Idlib branch of the Baath Party, worked to collect donations of supplies and money to encourage displaced residents of the city to return home. For example, one businessperson donated a heater for each family that wishes to return to Maaret Al-Numan, while another gave SYP 1 million per family. Another person promised to remove rubble from local homes should the owners return.