HAZANO, Syria -- One cold winter night in February 2020, Ibrahim Othman went out to pray and came home cradling a baby girl, abandoned at the doorstep of the village mosque just hours after she was born.
"I took her home and told my wife, 'I brought you a gift'," said the 59-year-old resident of Hazano, in opposition-held northwest Syria.
He named the baby Hibatullah, meaning "gift of God", and decided to raise her as one of the family.
Officials say babies are being left outside mosques, hospitals and even under olive trees in war-torn Syria as more than 12 years of grinding conflict fuel poverty and desperation.
"Only a few cases of child abandonment" were officially documented before the war broke out in 2011, according to the Washington-based group Syrians for Truth and Justice, which records human rights abuses in the country.
But between early 2021 and late 2022, more than 100 children -- 62 of them girls -- were found abandoned across the country, it said in a March report, estimating the real figure to be much higher.
"The numbers have increased dramatically" since the start of the conflict along with "the social and economic repercussions of the war" affecting both regime-controlled and opposition-held areas, the group said.
It pointed to factors including poverty, instability, insecurity and child marriage, along with sexual abuse and pregnancy out of wedlock.
While adoption is forbidden across Syria, Othman has asked the local authorities for permission to raise Hibatullah.
"I told my children that if I die, she should have part of my inheritance," even though she can never officially be part of the family, he said, breaking into tears.
The three-year-old now calls him "grandpa".
"She is just an innocent child," Othman said.
Spike in child abandonments
Health department official Zaher Hajjo said 53 abandoned newborn babies had been registered in regime-controlled areas in the first 10 months of last year -- 28 boys and 25 girls.
In opposition-held Idlib province, social workers at the main centre for abandoned children tended to tiny babies wrapped tightly in blankets in basic cradles, some spruced up with purple paint or ribbons.
In the bare-walled room, one woman rocked a baby to sleep with one hand while feeding another milk with the other.
Faisal al-Hammoud, head of programmes at the centre, said one baby girl they took in was found under an olive tree after being mauled by a cat.
"Blood was dripping down her face," he said, adding that the orphanage had since entrusted her to a family.
Workers follow up to make sure such babies are well treated and "that there is no child trafficking", Hammoud added.
The centre has taken in 26 babies -- 14 girls and 12 boys -- since it opened in 2019, and nine this year alone, said Abdullah Abdullah, a civil affairs official with Idlib's opposition authorities.
"The war is to blame and families too" for child abandonments, Abdullah said.
"These children are victims," he added.
Many blame al-Assad's regime
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad this year issued a decree creating dedicated facilities for the children, who would be automatically registered as Arab, Syrian and Muslim, with the place of birth as the location they were found.
But many blame al-Assad for creating the conditions that have led people to engage in such acts of desperation.
Syria's protracted war, stoked by Russia and Iran, has killed more than 500,000 people, displaced millions and ravaged the country's infrastructure.
Russian-backed bombing runs in opposition-controlled Idlib province, where thousands of regime opponents fled al-Assad's brutality, have killed Syrian civilians and laid waste to vital infrastructure.
Al-Assad's human rights violations have triggered international sanctions that have further weakened its shattered economy, and the regime has stolen aid intended for the Syrian people.
The Arab League readmitted al-Assad on May 19 following more than a decade of exile, but many believe the move is premature, saying the regime first must be held accountable for its crimes against the Syrian people.
Al-Assad should be put on trial following "hundreds of thousands of deaths" and "chemical arms use" during the war, the French foreign minister said Tuesday (May 23).
Asked during a television interview if she wanted al-Assad to be tried, Catherine Colonna said "the answer is yes", adding that "the battle against crime, against impunity is part of French diplomacy".
Paris will not be changing its policy towards the Syrian ruler, she said.
"We have to remember who Bashar al-Assad is," she said. "He's a leader who has been the enemy of his own people for more than 10 years."
"So long as he doesn't change, so long as he doesn't commit to reconciliation, to the fight against terrorism, the fight against drugs ... so long as he doesn't fulfill his commitments, there's no reason to change our attitude towards him."