Wed 03 Jun 2020

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“HTS” at a crossroads between its popular base and US dollars… Which side will it take?

A militant watching busses of Kefraya and al-Fouaa areas exiting the city - 17 July 2018 (afp)

A militant watching busses of Kefraya and al-Fouaa areas exiting the city - 17 July 2018 (afp)

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Enab Baladi – Murad Abdul Jalil

The disputes over commercial crossings in northern Syria that took place between Hay’ at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and other opposition armed factions in the last few years—the HTS fought many battles to establish control over the commercial traffic—has taken a new shape recently. This time the dispute arose between the HTS and citizens refusing to re-open commercial crossings with the Syrian regime. 

Trade crossings over the past years have been a significant source of income for the factions that control them. The commodities, including basic materials and foodstuffs, were not inspected nor subjected to any of the customs laws in force between countries, but rather to the laws of the Syrian regime’s checkpoints, the opposition factions, and the HTS group. They were also charged fees or subjected to royalties. 

However, these crossings, whether in southern Aleppo or northern Hama countryside, have all been shut down following the Syrian regime forces’ advancement through several military campaigns since April 2019.

Hence, the HTS lost all internal crossings with the regime until recently, where the situation in the Syrian north became relatively calm and stabilized under the Russian-Turkish ceasefire agreement signed on 5 of last March.

The HTS saw in the agreement an opportunity to open a commercial crossing with the regime under the pretext of exporting the surplus products.

Two options with no alternatives

A series of slogans including “there is no God, but Allah, al-Jolani is the enemy of Allah,” and “al-Maara is free, al-Jolani must get out of our region!,” were shouted by crowds of demonstrators in several areas in the Syrian north against the HTS and its general leader,” Abu Muhammad al-Jolani.”

These protests came after the HTS was determined to re-open commercial crossings in Maaret Elnaasan, and killed a civilian.

In the light of this furious popular rejection, the HTS found itself at a crossroads: either it must re-open the crossings and fill its treasury from the commercial trading with the regime, or it must stick to its popular base denouncing the re-opening of the crossing.

On 18 April, the HTS took its first move towards re-opening crossings in Saraqib area in eastern rural Idlib, re-controlled by the regime during the battles of last February. The second move, however, was intended to re-open a crossing in Maaret Elnaasan.

Nevertheless, the HTS’s moves were met with widespread public rejection by citizens and activists in both regions. Several opposing statements were issued, and activists called on citizens to take the streets and conduct peaceful sit-ins to protest against the crossings’ re-opening.

The first popular rejection forced the HTS to reverse its decision. However, in the second, the HTS insisted on re-opening the crossings and allowed the entry of trucks from the regime-controlled areas.

Therefore, tension escalated between the protesters and the HTS, and an HTS member opened fire against the crowds, killing a civilian and wounding others. After that, tension dominated the Idlib region and demonstrations against the faction, and its policies began.

Once again, the HTS yielded to popular demands and stated on 1 May that it suspended the re-opening of the crossings, taking responsibility for the wrongdoings and violations, as well as promising to hold the perpetrators accountable.

The HTS asserted that it refuses to target any civilian gatherings for the intimidation or dispersal of the crowds.”

It also promised to “punish whoever dared and shot fire.”

Re-opening the crossings, an interest, or a need?

The HTS justifies its decision by indicating that re-opening the crossings is in the interest of the region, as one way to reduce prices that have jumped over the past weeks.

The decision came after several meetings that brought together its leaders with a large number of different segments of society during the past weeks, according to what the HTS media communications director, Taqi al-Din Omar mentioned in an email sent to Enab Baladi.

For his part, the official in the HTS general directorate of crossings, Said al-Ahmad, said that the closure of crossings and the lack of searching for a window to facilitate the exporting of the region’s products would lead to the accumulation of goods, forcing people to stop their agricultural production.

Al-Ahmad pointed out that “export opens the ability to import, without the export of goods, residents of the liberated areas would have lived only on relief assistance.”

Al-Ahmad, as reported by Ebaa news agency, an HTS-linked media outlet on 27 April, said that liberated areas import five percent of goods from the regime-controlled areas against 95 percent from Turkey.

Meanwhile, northern Syria regions export half of their surplus products in a proportion of 90 percent to the regions held by the regime, while only 10 percent exported to Turkey.

However, in an interview with Enab Baladi, the minister of economy in the “Syrian Interim Government (SIG),” Abdul Hakim al-Masri, underlined that the price increase was not only due to the closure of crossings with the regime but also for other reasons.

One of these reasons is that the opposition factions lost control over western Aleppo and Idlib countryside, leading to the loss of large areas that were producing vegetables of all kinds.

Al-Masri also attributed the price hike to the rapid continued decline of the Syrian Pound’s value, in conjunction with the advent of Ramadan, where prices usually rise.

Al-Masri suggested that those who want to re-open commercial outlets with the regime are using the citizens and the deteriorating economic situation as a pretext. He also enquired, “will those re-opening the outlets enter the goods without imposing any fees? of course, they will not.”

Al-Masri identified several potential risks related to re-opening crossings, first of which is the transmission of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic from the regime-controlled areas (44 confirmed infection cases were recorded in Syria according to the regime’s Ministry of Health).

Another reason is “the possibility of smuggling narcotics into the liberated areas,” especially amid the announcement of Syria’s neighboring countries about the seizure of narcotic drug shipments coming from Syria in the past weeks.

“The regime will not hesitate to enter drugs to the liberated areas within the limited capabilities of detecting drugs which could be hidden in various ways,” al-Masri warned.

The minister also pointed out that the Syrian regime will also benefit from transferring the US dollar to its areas of control and from the price exchange difference.

Moreover, he added that the regime charges fees for vehicles entering its areas and makes a profit from them. The regime’s checkpoints charge vehicles entering its regions up to 8,000 USD, for trucks loaded with oil.

The checkpoints also charge a fee for vehicles entering the liberated areas, except for those loaded with agricultural products from the Syrian coastal areas. This exemption of fees was to encourage the entry and marketing of its products in order to compete with the ones in the liberated areas.”

HTS and crossings… a tale of US dollars 

The HTS involvement in the issue of opening crossings is not new, as it fought several military battles over the past years to seize them, driven by the financial return resulting from the trading activity.

It strived to neutralize these crossings from major military operations, and engaged in a tacit understanding with the other side, to establish commercial traffic and supply its treasury with revenues.

The most famous crossings previously held by the HTS before the Syrian regime forces retook control of them include al-Madiq castle crossing, Abu Dali, the Morek crossing in rural Hama, and al-Eis crossing in southern Aleppo countryside.

These crossings have supplied millions of US dollars for the faction’s treasury, according to Saleh al-Hamawi, a former Fatah al-Sham Front leader (known today as the HTS), and the owner of the famous Twitter account “the conflict in al-Sham.”

Al-Hamawi said in one of his Tweets that the HTS had a monthly income of 800,000 USD from the Morek crossing, while it gained 1.5 million USD per month from al-Eis, al-Mansoura, al-Madiq castle, and Abu al-Thuhour crossings.

The HTS prominent commander, Abu al-Abd Ashidaa, spoke in a video in September 2019 of financial and administrative corruption within the HTS group.

In that video, he explained that the HTS income amounted to 130 million USD per month, indicating that its leaders monopolized the import of almost all goods for a specific group of traders, thus overburdening people with the high costs of living.

 

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