The Star of Mardikh

Dr Mussaab Alshbib


Dr Mussaab Alshbib is an electrical engineer by training and currently head of the seven-year-old Mechatronics Department at Sham University in Azaz, Syria. On a Zoom call from his office in Azaz, he reveals calmly that his students are slowly but surely becoming wizards in the lab. Together, they invented, designed, and built an electric vehicle with a robotic arm, control panels for advanced factory automation, 3-D and solar energy system prototypes, and special motors. At the best of times, Mechatronic engineers can take a circuit board and an electric motor, use computer algorithms, and make magic, so it is great to hear what can still be done in this conflict-affected environment with limited access to the right equipment. It’s a multidisciplinary subject that creates “intelligent” systems for automation in manufacturing, and their designs and technologies play a part in everything we take for granted, including smartphones, satellites, and transport.

The titles of the classes Dr. Alshbib teaches: Electrical Circuits, DC Machines, Design & Drives, Special Machines, and Transformers Theory sound deceptively simple. Hearing this, he grins, “Mechatronics is difficult to teach and understand.” He is the first to admit it comprises pure maths, physics, and programming languages that few outside this discipline understand, requiring “simulations, programming, tests, experiments, and mental modelling.” There is also the manual craft, the time-tested material skill of building. Alshbib encourages his students to use their hands to discover for themselves. 

This story may end in Azaz, but it begins in the ancient village of Mardikh in the Idlib Governorate of Syria, where Alshbib was born and raised. His eyes light up when he talks about it. It is the nearest village to the site of historic Ebla, the ancient Sumerian kingdom founded in about 2900 B.C., which along with Egypt and Mesopotamia belonged to the great civilisations of the Levant. It is also famous for having one of the oldest archives and libraries ever found. For over two millennia, thousands of cuneiform literary and lexicographic tablets lay undisturbed, stored on shelves in catacombs, until the late sixties, when a crew of Italian archaeologists from the University of Rome led by Dr Paolo Matthiae began extensive and successive excavations. Alshbib remembers the archaeologists well because he actually worked for them as a boy during the summers for ten years during the seventies, collecting and sorting through thousands of small stone chips, putting shards of ancient stone back together with his hands, chatting to the scholars who arrived in his village every year for forty years: “That was my job, and it was very nice, while it lasted. It gave me a chance to learn some English with them.” Such an ancient place he thought would last forever, but he waves away the past with a non-committal gesture, as much of it has been destroyed: “There’s nothing left. During the conflict, a temple was destroyed, and bulldozers were used to excavate the land.” In the 2004 Census, Mardikh had a population of 2,918; now, he says, the landscape seems empty. There are the ghostly remains of ancient towns like Maaret al-Numan, Saraqeb, and Kafr Amim, which were evacuated during the 2019 Syrian Army Offensive against Idlib.

In the late nineties, Alshbib left Mardikh for the University of Aleppo to study electrical engineering. When he graduated, he did the obligatory military service for two years, then returned to complete a master’s degree. He started his PhD in 2010, a year before the demonstrations began, and in a way, he was too deep in his studies to leave and had nowhere to go as the conflict progressed.

His entire PhD experience took place during the Battle of Aleppo, a major conflagration between the Syrian opposition, the Levant Front, and al-Nusra against the Syrian government and its supporters: Hezbollah, Shia militias and Russia, and against the Kurdish-majority People’s Protection Units (YPG). The battle began in July 2012 and ended in July 2016 when, with the support of Russian airstrikes, Syrian government troops closed the rebels’ last supply line into Aleppo City. The battle was violent and included the targeting of schools and hospitals. Hundreds of thousands of residents were displaced by the fighting, and thousands lost their lives.

Throughout the battle, Alshbib lived in the laboratory. He slept there so he could get his work done: “When I needed to go outside to buy something to eat, bread, for example,” he recalls, “I’d go to the market for just one hour to get what I needed and then return to the university. I lived in this situation for four years until Aleppo became too dangerous. But my goal was to get my PhD, and because this was my wish, I was forced to do it.” He heard stories about many fellow students who had gone abroad and had to drop out, which both scared and motivated him. “Even now, at Sham,” he says, “a decade later, some older students come to our university with only four or five courses left to complete to be able to graduate, so they finish here.”

He graduated with his PhD in 2015. He left Aleppo because he had heard of a lab vacancy at the Physics Department at Idlib University, which was also rebel-controlled. He will be able to tell his grandchildren that he also went through the Battle of Idlib, in which a patchwork of different opposition groups jockeyed for power. In 2017 he was offered the possibility of working at the newly established Sham University in northwest Syria: “In the north,” says Alshbib, “we have fewer problems, including the devastating 2023 earthquake. Sometimes you can still hear bombing in the distance. It’s not like it was before, but it is still there.” Thinking of war, he cannot help feeling sad. “When I look at Gaza, I feel very sorry. It is tough for us to see scenes like the built city collapsing and the displacement of people from their houses. I don’t know what it is going to take for the world to stop war in places like Israel and Gaza, Ukraine and Russia. I don’t like war, so I don’t want to understand the details. War is not good for us, for the world. We are not supposed to be destroying cities and killing for nothing.”

Now, his family, his wife and two children live in Sanliurfa Governorate in Turkey, near Gaziantep. He commutes weekly crossing the Turkish-Syrian border to teach his electronics classes at Sham. As Head of Sham’s Department of Mechatronics, he is working with the Cara Syria Programme and its UK university partners to help develop Sham’s programmes, policies and practices in line with internationally recognised higher education quality standards, to improve the university’s chances of international recognition, so that it won’t all be in vain.

Through Cara’s network, he has published three papers with Professor Fathi Anayi from Cardiff University. He says that he has also significantly benefitted from the Syria Programme’s English for academic purposes tuition classes: “Studying a PhD in Arabic and being unaware of English is impossible, but I suffer from a lack of everyday language. For my PhD and master’s studies, I had to read English papers because so much of the research was not translated. In my job, I can read and write fantastically and understand, but it is difficult to speak English, so to overcome this problem, I join the weekly Syria Programme sessions.”

Even after experiencing two of Syria’s most significant battles, he expresses a wish that Syria reunites as one country, with one government and one population, and that all those who fled the Syria return to help to rebuild it. But, he says, “there is a difference between the wish and what we can expect.” He believes that Syria will need 20 to 30 years to overcome the destruction wrought by war; automation can decrease the time it takes to rebuild, and that is why he will dedicate his life to his country, to provide it with anything mechanical that it needs, he is ready on hand. Automation, however, is not all there is to life. “Like Ukraine, like Palestine, it will be difficult for Syria to return to the past. We will need a lot of time to forget what happened in the destruction of Syria and why people were killed for no real reason.”

When he is not at meetings and Cara Syria Programme workshops, trying to figure out the future of Sham with his colleagues and international partners, he is waging a war in his lab for the future of his country: “In robotics, electric transportation, and renewable energies, particularly in solar and wind,” he says, “we are preparing our students to be familiar with these technologies. For us, these will be important in the reconstruction of Syria.”