Resolving al-Rastan Issue… Is Beneficial for All Parties
The Syrian regime and Russia have been seeking to open the international highway between Homs and Hama, through negotiations with the opposition factions that have been controlling the northern countryside of Homs for five years.
The international highway starts from the capital Damascus and reaches the north. It crosses the countryside of Dimashq, then Homs, and then Hama governorate and continues to the city of Aleppo. It has a great economic importance as it is one of the strategic roads in Syria since it is considered as a passageway for tourist cars and trucks between the country’s north and south.
The international highway was previously known as “the caravans’ route.” The caravans used to gather in the city of Palmyra and then head towards the north to Aleppo and towards the south to Damascus through it.
The road was closed in 2012 after being cut by demonstrators in the city of al-Rastan, which is a strategic and articulated point. Its large bridge (600 meters long, 16 meters wide and 100 meters high) is part of the international highway between Homs and Hama. It has been witnessing intensive transportation movements right before the Syrian revolution.
The bridge was built by the president of the United Arab Republic, Gamal Abdel Nasser, during the political union between Syria and Egypt in 1958.
Regarding its great importance, Russia has repeatedly tried to open it, according to what the head of the local council in the city of al-Rastan, Youssef Darwish, stated to Enab Baladi.
On September 6, the head of the Operations Authority of the Russian General Staff, Sergey Rodzkoy, announced that the Russian forces reached an agreement with the opposition factions allowing the opening of the strategic route, before the factions denied this and insisted on releasing all Homs detainees from the regime’s prisons as a prerequisite for the implementation of the agreement.
The northern countryside of Homs is under the siege of Assad’s forces, but the area has been included in the tension-easing agreements, which guarantee a cease fire in it.
Local councils are beneficiaries
According to Darwish, there are many political and economic reasons to open the highway. He stressed that it is the backbone of trade as it facilitates the movement of vehicles, trucks, and goods. It also saves transportation costs for all parties, especially the movement of civilians, since it facilitates their access to all Syrian regions from north to south.
After the closure of the highway, passengers and cargo carriers had to take a long road which starts from Damascus and then to al-Mushrifahin the north-east of the countryside of Homs and then to Salamiyah before reaching Hama. The journey takes about five and a half hours, according to Mohammed al-Asaad who moves between Damascus and Hama. He explained that the current transportation cost exceeds two thousand Syrian Liras (one dollar equals about 500 Syrian Liras) after it was limited to 150 Syrian Liras in 2011 (one dollar was equivalent to 50 Syrian Liras).
Al-Asaad pointed out that if the road is opened, the transportation movement will become easier in terms of distances. He expected that they will last for three to four hours, according to the distribution of military checkpoints on the road, but he did not expect much difference in terms of the transportation cost.
This was confirmed by the media activist in Homs, Wael Jomaa Abu Rayyan, who said that the regime’s government will benefit from the road in shortening the distances. However, he pointed out to the “humanitarian” benefit for the besieged civilians in the northern countryside of Homs. He explained that the road will ensure the opening of two crossings of the region, the first with Hama, and the second with Homs. This might force the regime to provide the goods in the area.
The opening of the road would improve the entry of building and reconstruction materials, in addition to the service materials. This was pointed out by the head of the local council in al-Rastan, Youssef Darwish, as civilians and local councils would benefit from the trade movement and from canceling the fees that are imposed by the Syrian regime barriers that surround the area.
It is not yet known whether or not the local factions or councils will impose transportation taxes from the areas they control. This started to be implemented in southern Syria, between the regime-controlled areas and the factions-controlled areas in Daraa, where the two sides imposed customs taxes on goods.
From its part, the Syrian regime considered that opening the road would heal the citizens’ suffering. On Saturday (September 16th), a Syrian Foreign Ministry source told the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) that “the agreement on Idlib Governorate (including it as a fourth area to the tension-easing areas in the Astana International Meeting on Syrian Settlement) is a temporary agreement which aims mainly at restoring the activity of the road of Damascus – Hama – Old Aleppo, which will alleviate the citizens’ suffering and the traffic flow in all its forms to Aleppo and its neighbouring areas.
But the activist Abu Rayyan said that the economic importance will not be as great as the political importance that Russia would gain. Therefore, “it is keener than the regime to open it”, as the regime will not be able to pass machines and military tanks, while Moscow considers it as a political victory in the international forums, to make it look like the road was opened as a result of the tension-easing agreements that it reached with the factions after the regime failed to open it five years ago.
This what Darwish confirmed by saying, “The Russian side is trying to open the highway for political rather than economic gains. Therefore, it made several attempts to open the highway before the sixth session of the Astana International Meeting on Syrian Settlement, which was held on September 14 and 15.”
Whatever benefits each party tries to reach, many civilians wish to open the highway to alleviate their suffering, save time, and reduce the transportation costs, regardless of political gains.