Enab Baladi – Amal Rantisi
The border crossings in Syrian territories held by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) are tainted by a complex network of interests among Iraqi Kurdistan, the Syrian regime-held areas, and even regions controlled by the opposition in the east.
The atmosphere of the Autonomous Administration: Millions of dollars worth of trade at the crossings, smuggling in all directions, political pressure by regional and international forces, along with popular boiling due to the skyrocket prices and loss of basic commodities.
In this extended article, Enab Baladi will shed light on the border crossings in northeastern Syria, focusing on the Semalka-Fishkhabour crossing to explore the conflict of interest, disputes, and the tincture of crossings in regard to the political and economic impacts on regional actors and inhabitants.
Semalka-Fishkhabour border crossing
Mohammed Suleiman, 42, a car parts dealer in the northeastern city of Raqqa, was able to diversify his sources of commercial goods that he displays in his store in the industrial zone of Raqqa.
Suleiman told Enab Baladi that the conditions of closing the commercial crossings between northeastern Syria and the surrounding areas cause great losses for traders, whether through losing goods or steering customers to other merchants who have these goods available in their stores.
Suleiman’s trade mainly depends on importing spare parts for engines and cars from neighboring areas and selling them in parts to car owners or wholesale to other markets in Raqqa.
The closure of the Semalka-Fishkhabour crossing between the Autonomous Administration territory and the Iraqi Kurdistan region on 15 December 2021 caused an economic crisis in AANES regions which rely heavily on the Iraqi Kurdistan region, especially in terms of trade and securing raw and industrial materials.
It is not the first time that border crossings have been closed, but this time it was closed in the face of citizens and trade, including the al-Waleed crossing, which is located 10 kilometers south of Semalka, according to the Kurdish Rudaw media network.
The borderline of the Autonomous Administration with Iraq extends for 150 kilometers starts from the border triangle between Iraq, Syria, and Turkey; there are four border crossings and entry points: Rabia, al-Yarubiyah, Semalka-Fishkhabur, al-Waleed, and al-Faw.
The al-Yarubiyah crossing, once one of the arteries of the UN aid, was closed by a Russian veto in the Security Council in 2020, while the opening and closing of Semalka crossing, which was established in 2012, remains dependent on political tensions between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Autonomous Administration.
Reopening with American mediation
On 15 December 2021, the Semalka crossing came under attack by the “Guanan Şurşakır” (The Revolutionary Youth), a group close to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which led to its closure.
Rudi Mohammed Ameen, director of the crossings in northeastern Syria, stated on 19 December that the crossing was closed by the administration of Fishkhabour crossing without being notified officially about the reason for the closure, and the administration of Semalka crossing did not close the crossing from its side.
The closure was planned for a while, and it was not because of the attack of Guanan Şurşakır, but this “act” was an excuse to close the crossing, according to Ameen.
Most of the traders in the Autonomous Administration areas prefer the Semalka crossing to supply their goods because of the possibility of their travel to the Kurdistan region to check the goods on the ground, in addition to the urgent medical cases for treatment, according to the car parts seller, Mohammed Suleiman.
Food, vegetables, electrical parts, raw materials for some local industries, and transit vehicles also enter through the crossing.
After the last closure, which lasted more than a month, commercial traffic returned to the crossing on 24 January, after appeals from civil society organizations to the KRG and as a result of an American mediation that lasted for more than a month.
According to the American Al-Monitor website, the decision to reopen came after weeks of intense diplomacy between US officials and the KRG, including a phone call between the US National Security Coordinator for the Middle East, Brett McGurk, and the Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masrour Barzani, in addition to a meeting between the president of the region, Nechirvan Barzani, and the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Mazloum Abdi.
The ten-year-old Semalka-Fishkhabour crossing is separated by the Khabour River, which branches from the Tigris River. The crossing is located in the Dohuk governorate in the Kurdistan region.
The Autonomous Administration installed an iron bridge on the Tigris River to facilitate the passage of goods, and thousands of Syrians fleeing the Syrian war for reasons of asylum or work.
As well, It is an important major route for trade, economy, movement of citizens, and humanitarian organizations.
Economic benefits to Iraqi Kurdistan
Before the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, the relationship between the KRG and the Kurdish-majority areas in northeastern Syria was mostly political, limited to a small number of Syrian Kurds residing in the region, and a few Syrian Kurdish loyalists who support one of the main parties in Kurdistan.
Today, the economic factor has been added to these links, as the border crossings established between the two regions have turned into an active economic hub, according to a research study published by the Carnegie Center in 2021, entitled “The Making of the Kurdish Frontier: Power, Conflict, and Governance in the Iraqi-Syrian Borderlands.”
The study specified the growing economic importance of the Semalka crossing, as there was a trend towards expanding the movement of trade and passengers through the crossing.
While this crossing turned into an important source of livelihood, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the SDF developed their facilities to manage and support the movement of people and goods.
Two factors also contributed to making this decision, according to the Carnegie Center, the first being the closure of the al-Yarubiyah crossing, which made Semalka the most acceptable alternative, and the second being the deployment of US forces in both the Kurdistan region and northeastern Syria, which reinforced the importance of the crossing in order to transfer forces and their equipment.
Economic analyst and expert in energy economy at the Iraqi Center for Research and Policy Analysis, Mohammed Hussein, pointed out the great economic interests of the Kurdistan Government (KRG) from the Semalka crossing.
Hussein told Enab Baladi that there are several oil projects in Dohuk governorate, and areas near the crossing depend exclusively on crude oil coming from the Autonomous Administration, in addition to the latter’s dependence on the Iraqi Kurdistan’s goods.
The Autonomous Administration has attached utmost importance to opening and developing border crossings with the KRG and the rest of Iraq in the face of a Turkish-led siege from the north, and the Syrian opposition and the regime from the south and west, these corridors have provided the only reliable passage for the ‘Kurdish self-governing region” to interact with the external world, according to the Carnegie study.
The crossing is considered an economic vessel for Kurdistan, and the KRG has no economic interests in closing the crossing; on the contrary, it has commercial and economic interests in it, according to Hussein.
The analyst estimated the volume of trade exchange through the crossing between the Autonomous Administration and Northern Iraq, in the private and public sectors at more than 2 million US dollars per day, without including crude oil trade revenues.
If we want to calculate the trade exchange that includes crude oil from the Autonomous Administration areas, the trade exchange between the two parties reaches tens of millions of dollars per day, Hussein said.
Closing the crossing will cause both sides commercial losses, in addition to directly affecting thousands of people whose livelihood depends on the crossing, relations, and commercial exchanges among the people of the Autonomous Administration and Dohuk governorate.
The economic expert stressed that the political tension between the Kurdish parties and political complications are the ones that govern the scene. The main reason for closing the crossing can be enrolled as a political and pressure card by the Kurdistan Democratic Party or the Iraqi side.
The international parties that are pressing to close the crossing do so for clear political reasons as they consider the Autonomous Administration and its military wing, the SDF, an offshoot of their enemy PKK.
|The Kurdistan region of Iraq enjoys good relations with Turkey, headed by Nechirvan Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and its military arm, the Peshmerga, while the Autonomous Administration in Syria is headed by Berivan Khaled and Abd Hamed al-Mahbash, and its military arm SDF which is backed by the PKK and the US-led International Coalition.|
Looking for alternatives
The Autonomous Administration considers the Semalka crossing the main artery of the commercial movement in its areas of control, according to a member of the Economic Committee in the Raqqa Civil Council (Enab Baladi withheld his name for security reasons).
The administration seeks to strip the commercial movement from the influence of political and military disputes with the neighboring regions, but it is not an easy issue, and it has not been resolved for years, he added.
In light of the crossing instability with the Iraqi side, the Autonomous Administration eyes the possibility of establishing a stable trade movement with the interior regions of Syria.
The SDF-controlled territory intertwined with the Syrian regime areas through official crossings where both sides are exchanging goods.
A study by Jusoor Center monitored the movement of the domestic crossings in Syria, revealing that the al-Tayha crossing in the southwest of Manbij city and al-Hora crossing east of the city of Tabqa are the most preeminent crossings between the two sides. It is vital for the Syrian forces who pass through the crossing to their bastions inside the SDF areas. It is also supplied with fuel through both crossings.
Smuggling as cushy way
The crossings can not be completely under full surveillance. This led to the birth of smuggling routes in which civilians and goods exit and enter while both sides turn a blind eye to illegal moves to achieve their interests.
A member of the Economic Committee in Raqqa confirmed to Enab Baladi that the imposition of royalties by the Syrian regime forces on goods imported to northeastern Syria, and the large number of checkpoints, annoy merchants and push them to search for safer ways and alternatives.
In Deir Ezzor governorate, over which the Syrian regime forces and the SDF share control, there are several unofficial crossings for smuggling between the two banks of the Euphrates River, which divides the governorate between the two sides.
The ease of smuggling is due to the spread of houses on the eastern bank of the river, and the size of these large houses allows their owners to turn them into points for delivering and receiving smuggled materials to and from SDF-controlled areas.
Recently, a talk deliberated about the opening of a crossing for the exchange of commercial goods between the areas controlled by the SDF and the regime, and it is the first official crossing to be opened in the governorate, which Iranian factions share control over with the Syrian regime forces.
A member of the Deir Ezzor Civil Council (who spoke on condition of anonymity) told Enab Baladi that during the last period, the Hammar al-Ali crossing, connecting between the SDF areas with the regime areas, and the a-Baghouz crossing on the Iraqi border, were opened.
The two crossings are intended for the transit and exchange of commercial goods.
The council member added that the turnout at the crossings is still low because it is limited to the passage of some goods, especially cigarettes and tobacco.
Traders told Enab Baladi that some of them buy goods from the regime areas because they have Syrian currency, which cannot be used to purchase goods through the rest of the crossings that rely on the US dollar as the only currency for commercial transactions.
Abdulrahim Tkhoubi, an expert in Kurdish affairs, told Enab Baladi that the opening of new crossings would not stop smuggling because it is an organized process in which officials from both sides are involved. Also, it generates considerable economic income for smuggling networks that cooperate with corrupt officials of the regime and Autonomous Administration, especially the fuel smuggling groups.
Narrow options and political gains
Alternatives of Semalka for the Autonomous Administration are very narrow as materials that can be imported from regime areas are few, not many, especially building materials, telephones, and many foodstuffs, Tkhoubi said.
The Syrian regime is trying to obtain political gains through economic pressure on the Autonomous Administration, which is ready, at the present time, to make political concessions to the regime in exchange for opening commercial crossings, experts say.
The Kurdish administration relies on Russian mediation to open the crossings with the regime. It also resorted previously to the method of besieging the regime’s areas in the cities of Qamishli and al-Hasakah, to put pressure on it at a time when the regime was pressuring the Autonomous Administration in the al-Shahba and Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhoods in Aleppo city. This mutual pressure tactic will be resorted to if necessary, according to Tkhoubi.
The opposition-held areas are witnessing a commercial exchange with the Autonomous Administration through the Oun al-Dadat crossing in the Manbij countryside, but the crossing can not be a substitute for the Semalka crossing due to the possibility of its closure by Turkey or its allied factions at any time.
Masoud al-Zarkan, 50, who owns a wholesale store in al-Yarubiyah town, told Enab Baladi in a phone call that all foodstuffs are imported either from Iraqi Kurdistan or from regime areas and a small portion comes from areas controlled by the opposition factions.
Growing public anger
The closure of the Semalka border crossing caused the loss of basic materials, including cooking oil and sugar, in light of the monopoly of traders, which led to an increase in its prices.
The price of one kilogram of sugar reached in some areas 6,000 SYP (about 1.63 USD). The former price was 1,800 SYP (49 US cents).
On 17 January, the residents of al-Salehiya neighborhood in al-Hasakah city demonstrated in front of the Newroz Consumer Corporation, protesting skyrocketing prices and the monopoly of food commodities.
The long queues of people in front of the consumer Corporations run by the Autonomous Administration reflect residents’ fear and panic of losing food, which turned the main reason for causing such crises, which prompts merchants to monopolize the materials and raise their prices, according to a member in the Economic Committee in the Raqqa Civil Council.
Abdulrahim Tkhoubi, who is a specialist in East Euphrates affairs, said the ailing economic situation and the state of poor public services in northeastern Syria were the main reasons for the protests that took place in the past two years in the Autonomous Administration territories, which in parallel contributed to the decline in popularity of the Autonomous Administration.
The residents blame the deteriorating living conditions on the rampant corruption in Autonomous institutions and the inability to create good political relations with neighboring countries, especially with Iraqi Kurdistan.
A large portion of the inhabitants believes that they are paying the price of political disputes that have nothing to do with them.
“The disputes of the PKK, Turkey and the KRG must be resolved far away from northeastern Syria, but the policies of the Autonomous Administration, and its submissiveness to the PKK, have generated unnecessary political and security dilemmas in the region,” Tkhoubi concluded.
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