Domestic and border crossings: Russia’s mean to stifle northern Syria

Employee at Bab al-Hawa Border Crossing between Syria and Turkey counting aid items delivered to Syria —18 September 2020 (Enab Baladi / Youssef Ghuraibi)

Employee at Bab al-Hawa Border Crossing between Syria and Turkey counting aid items delivered to Syria —18 September 2020 (Enab Baladi / Youssef Ghuraibi)

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Enab Baladi-Ali Darwish

The Syrian regime and Russia brought back into discussion the reopening of border crossings between regime-controlled and opposition-held areas in northern Syria. The reopening proposal had a different official tone, reportedly addressing what the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) called “the humanitarian situation and readiness to take in people wishing to leave areas controlled by terrorist organizations.”

This is not the first time that the regime attempts to have crossings reopened, nor is it the first time the regime alleges that “terrorist organizations” are preventing people from leaving opposition-held areas. Residents in the opposition’s territories responded. They denied the regime’s allegations and said that they themselves would hamper the opening of crossings, should any of the area’s military factions accept the regime’s proposals.

Residents in opposition-held areas protested reopening crossings in question for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the regime sees these crossings as a breakthrough to overcome the economic siege and escape international sanctions, among other military and security reasons.

However, the regime and Russia’s motives to call for reopening crossings are not financial only. The regime actually intends to control the UN aid entering opposition-controlled areas through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey.

In March 2015, opposition factions took control of Idlib governorate and extended their influence on northwestern Syria. Then, opposition-controlled and regime-controlled areas were linked by commercial crossings supervised by factions on one side and regime forces on the other.

The most prominent of these crossings were Morek, north of Hama, al-Eis, south of Aleppo (an alternative to the Abu Dali crossing), and al-Mansoura, west of Aleppo. Domestic commercial operations were carried out through these three crossings.

Meanwhile, the UN and the Red Crescent used Qalaat al-Madiq crossing, northwest of Hama, to deliver humanitarian aid, transfer wounded, prisoners, and detainees of swap deals to and from the area, and to evacuate people displaced by the regime.

These four crossings became inoperative when the regime took them over following the military operations launched by its forces, with Russian and Iranian coverage. These operations also enabled the regime to establish control over Damascus-Aleppo International Highway (M4).

With military campaigns it carried out between February 2019 and March 2020, the regime also retook the entire southern and most of the western suburb areas of Aleppo, and several cities and towns in the countryside of Hama and Idlib.

Russia’s key objective

Seizing UN aid

Following the regime’s recent proposal, Syrian activists and analysts claimed that Russia and Turkey, under the Moscow agreement of 5 March 2020, have also agreed to open crossings, to be supervised by both countries.

Head of the Information Unit at Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Nawar Shaban told Enab Baladi that there is no way to confirm that such a deal has been signed. However, Russia has been certainly working to reopen crossings. Russia intends “to stop all international crossings”— border crossings that Security Council has allowed the UN to use in delivering aid to Syria.

He added that such a Turkish-Russian deal does not exist and is unlikely to be signed. He said that some crossings will probably be reopened, but they will be used only for domestic trade, not to function by the Russian proposed formula.

Shaban told Enab Baladi that internal crossings that Russia proposed to reopen would function in the regime’s favor in several ways. The regime will be capable of advocating for the closure of border crossings, controlling all aid entering Syria, and demanding relegitimization of the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad. “This is wanted by neither Turkey, nor the Syrian Interim government, or even the international actors.”

He added that the issue is not about establishing relations or opening crossings; rather, it is about the way the aid will be admitted into Syria. “If Russia controls this file, many issues [political and service-related] will cease to be problematic, and Russia will acquire terrifying pressure tools.”

On 23 March, Russia proposed that Turkey open three crossings between the regime and the opposition control areas in northern Syria, in the regions of Saraqib and Miznaz, east of Idlib, and Abu Zendin crossing, north of Aleppo.

The Russian proposal included “regulating the entry of humanitarian goods and departure of refugees” as of 25 March.

Before submitting the proposal, the regime and Russia intensified shelling on opposition-held areas, targeting Ariha city, south of Idlib, and a fuel market west of Sarmada town, northern countryside of Idlib, al-Atarib hospital, west of Aleppo, and the vicinity of the Bab al-Hawa crossing.

The shelling killed eight civilians and wounded over 15 others, in addition to material damage of properties in target areas.

Economic analyst Firas Shaabou told Enab Baladi that the crossings’ issue will be left aside for now, at least until the links and action mechanisms between these crossings are clearly understood. Today, international actors are waiting to know what task will be assigned to these crossings, whether humanitarian—how would border-crossers be treated then— or commercial—what fees would be imposed—in addition to other considerations, should they be opened.

Shaabou added that the international community and organizations do not make decisions based on news only. They hinge their decisions on studies or indicators from the ground.  Therefore, “it is too early to talk about the aid issue.”

He pointed that the regime is provided with a vast amount of aid, which is stealing, seizing, or distributing to its supporters, through its affiliated associations and organizations, such as the al-Bustan Association or the Syria Trust for Development.

Turkey and opposition deny the Russian deal

Reuters on 25 March reported that two Turkish officials “denied on Thursday Russian reports that Turkey had agreed this week to open three crossing points in northwest Syria between opposition and government-held territory.”

Previously, the President of the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), Abdulrahman Mustafa, also refuted the news. He tweeted: “media outlets reported inaccurate news that crossings between liberated and occupied areas will be opened. We confirm that this news is completely baseless.”

Taqi al-Din Omar, the spokesperson of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), also told Enab Baladi online that no crossings will be opened with regime-controlled areas.

Challenging Washington?

It is the second time, since the beginning of 2021, that the regime and Russia start a media campaign advocating for the reopening of crossings and allowing people from opposition-held areas into those controlled by the regime. Several analysts considered these campaigns a prelude to the upcoming Security Council meeting on the humanitarian situation in Syria.

Statements of the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken on 26 March corroborated the analysts’ interpretation. He said that he will be chairing a meeting of the UN Security Council on the humanitarian situation in Syria and the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people.

Blinken stated that, during his virtual visit to New York City on 29 March, he “will reinforce the United States’ support for the Syrian people, for a nationwide ceasefire, and for unhindered access that will allow humanitarian assistance to reach vulnerable communities throughout the country.”

Blinken’s agenda also includes meeting with UN Secretary-General António Guterres “to discuss pressing UN Security Council issues, the continued need for reform of the UN system, and future opportunities for U.S. engagement throughout the UN.”

Lading up to these statements, talks increased that the US is pressing Turkey to open border crossings, particularly since Turkey is largely in command of the political, military, and economic affairs of opposition-controlled areas in northern Syria.

Turkey backs the Syrian National Army (SNA), which dominates in the countryside of Aleppo, and its affiliate the National Front for Liberation (NFL), which operates in Idlib governorate, not to mention the Turkish military posts and forces deployed throughout the region.

Turkey is also the third Astana Talks’ guarantor state, along with Russia and Iran, and it was the deal it had with Russia in March 2020 that stopped the regime forces’ progress into opposition areas.

In July 2020, a Russian-Chinese veto of a Security Council draft resolution restricted cross-border humanitarian aid to Bab al-Hawa crossing only, which connects the opposition-controlled areas in northern Syria with the Turkish territory. Three other former crossings were rendered inoperative.

Russia and China vetoed a Belgian-German draft resolution that aimed to reauthorize delivering humanitarian aid through border crossings to northern Syria without the regime’s approval.

The vetoed draft resolution provided for the re-authorizing of transfer of aid through the Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salameh crossings on the Syrian-Turkish border for a full year. The authorization resolution, applied several times to these crossings, was deactivated on 10 June 2020.

The Security Council will address the issue of cross-border aid again in July 2021, when current authorization for the Bab al-Hawa crossing is expired.

Revenues mostly into regime’s pockets

Analyst Shaabou said that it is in the interest of Russia, Turkey and Iran to open the crossings for trade because the crossings are vital to all three countries.

He said that Russia is looking for economic solutions inside Syria and is trying as hard as possible to relieve pressure on the regime, as it cannot help it financially.

He added that opening the crossings and allowing trade and free movement between the two regions might bring in dollars into the regime’s control areas. The regime will also try to obtain some goods and products now it is denied due to economic conditions or sanctions. “This will relieve the regime to a considerable extent.”

Activating crossings will also turn the opposition areas into an open market for Syrian and Iranian goods, which would constitute a “vent for the regime, positively affect its economy, and help it solve some of its economic problems.”

While regime-held areas continue to battle with previous crises, many new ones arose this year, affecting the lives of Syrian citizens in a variety of negative ways.  Such crises include bread, gas and petrol queues, as well as transportation services difficulties.

These crises coincided with the deterioration of the value of the Syrian pound, which reached record lows, amounting to 5000 SYP per USD in March.

Lean benefits for opposition-held areas

Analyst Shaabou said that the scale of benefits tilts towards the regime, for opposition-controlled areas will only have access to new markets for their food and agricultural products.

Greater financial benefits in the opposition-controlled areas go to owners of large capital and warlords because administratively these areas can channel into Syria Turkish goods through the borders but lack the infrastructure and production capacity to feed regime-controlled areas with locally produced ones.

Having a different opinion as to the benefits that the regime might make from reopening crossings economic, researcher Manaf Quman told Enab Baladi earlier that the crossings would barely revive the regime or contribute to buffer the US and European sanctions imposed on the regime and its supporters.

Quman said that the regime might be able to open the Nasib crossing with Jordan, or al-Masnaa with Lebanon, or al-Qa’im with Iraq if it adheres to not violating or circulating items prohibited by sanctions related mainly to reinforcing its military arsenal, high-tech products, and others that help it suppress the protests, in addition to oil and gas. Should this happen, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq can all benefit from customs duties imposed on goods’ transport through the crossings.

In the past 10 years, crossings were the main source of income for the factions that control them, for most of the raw materials and foodstuff that entered Syria are exempted from inspections and customs laws in force between the involved countries. However, within Syria, the same goods were subjected to royalties and bribes paid to HTS in Idlib, other military factions, and regime checkpoints.

Owner of the famous asseraaalsham Twitter account Saleh al-Hamwi, a former commander of Fatah al-Sham Front— toady Tahrir al-Sham,  on 17 April  2020, tweeted that HTS’s income from the Morek crossing amounted to 800,000 USD per month, while it made a total of about 1.5 million USD  per month from al-Eis, Mansoura, Qalaat al-Madiq and Abu Dhuhur crossings.

Crossings’ hazards

The SIG’s Minister of Economy, Abdel Hakim al-Masry, told Enab Baladi that risks that might arise from reopening crossings, include “bringing drugs into the liberated areas,” especially since neighbor countries have been reporting the seizure of narcotic pills shipments coming from regime-held areas. “The regime will not hesitate to allow [drugs] access into the liberated areas since there are only limited resources to expose drugs, which have been kept undercover in a variety of ways.”

The minister listed other threats involved in reopening domestic crossings, transferring dollars to the regime’s areas to take advantage of exchange rate differences and increasing fees the regime has been charging cargo vehicles passing towards its areas,  for  “the regime’s checkpoints charge a fee of up to 8000 USD from cars loaded with oil. These checkpoints also demand a fee from cars entering the liberated areas unless they are loaded with the coastal areas’ agricultural products. The latter group is not charged money as to encourage their entry and marketing in liberated areas, where these products will be in competition with local or imported products.”

Relief to guarantor states in several ways

Analyst Shaabou told Enab Baladi that improving economic life in Syria lies in Russia’s favor because Moscow would like to reenergize the Syrian economy to start investments and have revenues itself.

Moscow had already obtained long-term economic advantages by signing agreements with the regime’s government, notably deals pertaining to oil, gas, and supply of wheat, in addition to dozens of agreements that Russian merchants and companies have concluded in Syria.

Opening border crossings serves Turkey’s interests as well because Syrian territories will again become a route for Turkish goods to the Gulf markets.

Shaabou added that resuming activities through border crossings might as well be beneficial for Iran because it will attempt to find economic solutions also based on using Syrian territories.

Reactivating the crossings will allow the flow of commercial goods through the two international roads the M4—extending from Iraqi borders in northeastern Syria through Raqqa, Aleppo and Idlib to the Syrian coast on the Mediterranean— and the M5— extending from the Jordan-Syria border as far as the Turkey-Syria border.

Due to overlapping territories, regime-controlled areas cannot be separated from those held by the opposition. Economic interests will prevail and cast their shadow on the political situation, including even the areas where the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) rule.

Smuggling operations between separate control territories were carried out since the first days of the crossings’ closure, under the eyes of the regime and the opposition. That is, commercial dealings will be conducted whether overtly or in secret. Syrian territories cannot be isolated from each other, because these territories do not actually stand as two different states.

Economic analyst Firas Shaabou

Locals do not agree

The areas controlled by opposition factions in northern Syria have witnessed protests against the opening of crossings with regime-held areas after Russia declared that it had a deal with Turkey to open three crossings.

On 24 March activists used the hashtag #No Crossings with Regime, warning of the consequences.

The hashtag users said that reopening the crossings might be “an economic breakthrough for the regime.”

Others said, “it would bring drug trade to opposition-controlled areas and allow for security infiltration of these areas.”

A group of defector officers also made a statement, expressing their disapproval of reopening the crossings.

People took to the streets in the cities of Afrin and Azaz in the countryside of Aleppo, and in the city of Idlib. They raised banners saying: “No to opening the crossings,” and “Opening the crossings is a betrayal of martyrs’ blood.”

Responding to people’s demands, the HTS canceled the opening of the crossing between Ma`arat al-Na`asan and Armanaz, east of Idlib in early May 2020.  The faction also postponed the opening of the Saraqib crossing on 18 April 2020.

At the time, the HTS justified opening the crossings by the decline of commercial activity in Idlib governorate after the recent military campaign in northwestern Syria, due to which “tens of thousands of people lost their jobs, livelihoods, and lands.”

The HTS said that merchants requested the reopening of the Sarmin-Saraqib commercial crossing because the massive population in Idlib governorate “does not live on an island, cut off life’s needs.”

Said al-Ahmad, General Administration of Crossings’ official, said that “the liberated areas import 5 percent of needed goods from the regime’s areas compared to 95 percent from Turkey,” while the northern Syrian regions export 50 percent of the surplus of their product to the regime’s areas at a rate of 90 percent and by only 10percent to Turkey.

He added that “exports enable imports, and had it not been for exports, the residents of the liberated areas would have lived on relief and aid only,” while closing the borders and refraining from finding solutions to sell local products would cause goods to bile up and, in turn, will drive farmers to stop cultivation.

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