“Taking control of economic resources” was the headline of the resurgent conflict between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham that Idlib Province, northern Syria, has witnessed last month. Although the conflict was apparently about fighting over geographical control and spreading each group’s influence, analysts attributed it to establishing authority over the most important economic resources.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which has been able to expand its influence, was accused of trying to bring extra resources to its previously acquired ones, namely electricity, water and crossings, especially Bab al-Hawa and others. This was achieved through its administrative apparatus’s (the General Management of Services) imposition of a percentage of subsidies provided to organizations and operating local councils, in addition to another percentage consisting of goods or money, according to the statement of the economic researcher Ayman al-Desouky in his interview with Enab Baladi.
Bab al-Hawa Crossing
Bab al-Hawa is located in northern Idlib on the Syrian-Turkish border and faces Al Rayhaniya city in the Turkish side. It is considered as the centre of Syria’s first gateway towards Turkey and Europe.
During the years of the revolution, the crossing was controlled by more than one party, because of the taxes on large financial resources that each party was eager to seize. It is considered as the most important resource for the controlling party due to the entry of commercial trucks and the movement of civilians.
The Free Army took control of the crossing on 19 July, 2012, as the first border crossing with Turkey to fall in the hands of the Syrian opposition factions, before Ahrar al-Sham attacked the Free Army’s staff headquarters and warehouses.
On 21 April, 2015, the Islamic Movement Ahrar al-Sham announced that it handed over the crossing to a “civil” administration, which oversees movement, immigration and passport management between Turkey and Syria. However, others felt that the administration was subordinate to it.
Taking control of the province pushed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham to attack Ahrar al-Sham last month, resulting in its withdrawal from the crossing.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham announced that the crossing would be handed over to a civilian administration, but some considered that the administration would be subordinate to it, and therefore the financial revenues would go to its treasury.
Over the past few months, the Hayat has tried to take control of all the economic resources in the region and that has led to clashes and confrontations with the factions, since those who take hold of the economy of the province will certainly expand their military control there.
In a statement issued in May, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham announced the establishment of the so-called “General Organization for Cash Management and Consumer Protection,” which aims at regulating exchange operations and preventing monopoly and manipulation of currency prices.
However, analysts considered that this step aims at controlling the management of money market, cash flow and exchange offices under various arguments, especially since the announcement of the formation of the organization came after a raid on a number of exchange offices and the confiscation of money.
In addition to remittances, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham worked on imposing itself in the electricity sector after a data battle with Ahrar al-Sham, announcing last month that it had merged its electricity institution with that of Ahrar al-Sham. But in an interview with Enab Baladi, Abu Zahra al-Madani, service officer at the General Management Service, denied this.
Economic researcher Ayman al-Desouky considered that the Hayat’s declaration and Ahrar al-Sham’s denial indicate that the battle between both is not only related to the military wing, but rather is a conflict between the services of the two factions and an attempt by the Hayat to accuse any service body that tries to limit its control.
Al-Desouky pointed out that those who control electric power lines hold the economy of the region, because everything depends on electricity, such as bakeries and pumps of water wells. In reality, Idlib’s economy is based on agriculture and therefore it needs water and electricity, which are the lifeblood of any society.
Manoeuvres of Hayat in Bab al-Hawa
As for the crossing points, the Hayat recurrently tried to control Bab al-Hawa border crossing for the material revenue it provides for the group which controls it, whether the entry and exit of people or the entry of goods. The Hayat was able to control it under the pretext of “liberating their prisoners who were imprisoned by Ahrar al-Sham in the crossing.” It pretended also that it was the starting point of Ahrar al-Sham’s attack on the headquarters of the Hayat in Sarmada, in addition to Ahrar’s refusal to hand over the crossing to civil administration, according to what Emad Eddin Mujahid, director of media relations in the Hayat, said in an interview with Enab Baladi.
After it took control of the crossing, the Hayat stated that it would be under the supervision of a civil administration, but a media activist, who refused to reveal his name for security reasons, explained to Enab Baladi that “the civil administration will belong to that of Idlib, which in itself belongs to the Hayat, and consequently all the financial revenues will be theirs but under the name of civil institutions.”
Al-Desouky considered that the Hayat is deliberately manoeuvring at the crossing through several proposals, including handing over the crossing to military bodies such as Nur al-Din al-Zengi, or handing it over to an administrative body to absorb the popular rage fearing the stop of aid and transit .
Al-Desouky pointed out that the Hayat will be in control of the crossing and will not give it up, because it cannot engage itself in a battle that is considered one of its major battles with Ahrar al-Sham and then hand the crossing over to another party.
The Hayat also benefit from other crossings located between the opposition and the Syrian regime areas, by imposing fees, taxes and royalties on trucks, says a media activist. The latter gave the crossing of al-Rahjan village in north-eastern Hama as an example and clarified that the Hayat imposes sums of money on sugar trucks entering the regime-held areas.
Enab Baladi tried to communicate with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in order to know its response to these accusations. It also spoke with Emad Eddin Mujahid who refused to answer at the moment, for reasons he attributed to their preoccupation with the Syrian refugees who arrived from Lebanese Arsal to Idlib last Thursday, after an agreement with Hezbollah.
Awaiting for Idlib’s Unknown Fate
The expansion of the Hayat’s authority raised several questions about the province’s military and economic future, and how would it affect citizens, amid concerns over the suspension of donor organizations support, in addition to political analysis about Idlib becoming a second Mosul, especially after the American Ministry of Foreign Affairs threatened and asked everyone in a statement to stay away from the Hayat.
Syrian organizations and networks denied the termination of any of their projects or the funding of donors to various humanitarian projects being affected, because of the recent fighting, stressing that the continuation of the provision and delivery of aids to the needy won’t be affected. They pointed out that they will closely monitor the field situation and issue updates in case of important and influential developments.
The Hayat issued a statement on 31 July clarifying that it is working to “consolidate the principle of neutrality and independence of humanitarian organizations and is seeking to remove the obstacles in front of them in order to deliver assistance to those who deserve it,” calling on all actors to neutralize the humanitarian and civil institutions that are based on “helping the needy.”
Following the Hayat’s takeover, Bab al-Hawa stopped the entry of building materials on the pretext of giving priority to food convoys for fear of their perishability. Although there were reports about entry resumption, only few trucks entered, leading to higher prices of building materials.
Al-Desouky said that winter will come in two months, and the region needs fuel, power and gasoline. So, preventing the entry of fuel, just like building materials, will raise prices and only the citizen will bear its cost.
The threat and high security risks during the last period will lead to the monopoly of basic materials, most likely affecting the economy of the region. Any military operation against the Hayat will stop all development and agricultural projects as well as commercial activities and cause a shortage of goods. All this would affect the economy of Idlib too.
The citizens of Idlib are still waiting for what their city would become, amid fears that it will turn into the ground to settling disputes between the major powers. This comes at a time when there is no place for displacement after the closure of the Turkish border, except for regime-held areas or Syrian Democratic Forces-held areas which surround the region.