Opening of Abu al-Zandeen crossing: A step in a Turkish-Russian path

A fighter in the Syrian National Army during the preparation of Abu al-Zandeen crossing in the countryside of Aleppo that connects with areas controlled by the Syrian regime – March 18, 2019 (Enab Baladi)

A fighter in the Syrian National Army during the preparation of Abu al-Zandeen crossing in the countryside of Aleppo that connects with areas controlled by the Syrian regime – March 18, 2019 (Enab Baladi)

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Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

The protests in the cities of al-Bab and Azaz in the countryside of Aleppo on Friday, June 28, following the announcement of the opening of the Abu al-Zandeen crossing, were not linked to the opening of the crossing itself, or the economic benefits and harms it might bring to the region. Instead, they came because of the clear political shift it represents, which may bring the regime that the area’s residents reject and the opposition that currently manages it closer together.

The Abu al-Zandeen crossing connects the city of al-Bab in eastern Aleppo, in the Euphrates Shield operation area under opposition control with Turkish sponsorship, to eastern Aleppo under regime control. It is located to the west of the city of al-Bab, near the village of al-Shamawiya, which is under regime control.

While the local council of al-Bab city announced the opening of the crossing, local activities in the city demanded that the crossing be handed over to a civilian authority to avoid protests against its opening, especially since opposition factions have a long history of fighting over crossings, considering them an important economic resource for the region.

Others spoke about the economic and security risks the opening of the crossing poses to areas controlled by the Syrian National Army in northern and eastern Aleppo countryside.

Opposition’s ability to manage the process

Abu al-Zandeen is not the first crossing in the area and may not be the last to cause tension. Opposition factions have always fought over the management of these crossings, while the Syrian Interim Government (the political umbrella of the National Army) tries to depict itself as managing the crossings.

In March 2023, the Ministry of Defense in the Interim Government announced that it had taken over the management and operation of the al-Hamran crossing five months after a dispute over it between military factions in the area.

The ministry’s announcement did not end the dispute, as armed confrontations over the crossing itself resumed in September 2023, prompting direct Turkish intervention to stop the fighting.

Today, with the announcement of the opening of the Abu al-Zandeen crossing, the same questions arise about the opposition’s ability to manage this crossing. Political affairs researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Maan Talaa, believes that the opposition is capable, as it has extensive experience in managing humanitarian and commercial crossings that have been opened over the past years.

He added to Enab Baladi that the Turkish-Russian agreement to open the crossing, though its details have not yet been leaked, will clarify the management details of the crossing, and naturally, the armed opposition will be a part of the execution.

According to Talaa, the security challenge remains predominant for the National Army factions, and he estimated that the security issue might not be significantly impactful, especially since the crossing itself was previously active unofficially (through smuggling operations).

Without losses?

While analyses and opinions conflict about the results of opening the crossing, considering it a first step in a long Turkish-Russian path, researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies, Wael Alwan, believes that the opposition has many measures or tools that it may take to avoid “national losses.”

Alwan told Enab Baladi that there are many measures that could deprive the regime of achieving political gains, closely tied to the opposition’s will.

He added that the event itself is both political and service-oriented, noting that the issue of opening crossings is not a new occurrence in the area but has been suggested since the ceasefire agreement in 2020. It was delayed until now because “the environment was not suitable.”

The opening of the crossing, according to Alwan, which occurred after years of negotiations, aims to facilitate commercial exchange, and may evolve to facilitate civilian movement in the future. However, managing these steps is tied to economic and security levels, and these steps must have a “national and political perspective” to avoid regional losses.

The researcher considered the crossing necessary for the region, and the real danger lies in smuggling operations that may become active between the control areas, and enhancing management and organization is what will avoid the losses resulting from smuggling, not from opening the crossing itself.

A step in a long path

The discussion of opening internal crossings connecting areas controlled by Syrian opposition factions in the north with regime-held areas is accompanied by popular anger, dissatisfaction, and rejection of this step, as opening crossings means dealing with the regime politically.

Russia has always expressed its desire to open crossings with opposition-held areas that are under Turkish control, but popular rejection has prevented the process from being completed.

The changes in the military control map in northwestern Syria have been stagnant since March 2020, after an agreement between Russia and Turkey drew geographical boundaries between opposition and regime-held areas, leaving internal crossings (portals) linking the two sides.

This coincided with rising talks about rapprochement between Turkey and the Syrian regime, and understandings between international, regional, and local parties played pivotal roles in the crossings’ working mechanisms.

On Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan mentioned, “As we have kept our relations with Syria very much alive, we have held these meetings with Mr. Assad in the past, including family meetings.”

The researcher Maan Talaa classified the agendas listed on the Russian-Turkish table into three levels: the first is security and will always continue to discuss developments.

The second is linked to the economic and service aspect, including internal crossings like Abu al-Zandeen and may later involve facilitating movement on roads like the “M4” and “M5,” alongside other issues such as water and education files, and other matters related to civil records.

The researcher expected a third-level military agenda that could aim to deploy regime forces in areas separating the front lines between the National Army and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

At the same time, the researcher anticipated no indicative signs of nearing the application of the third level of understandings, pointing out that they are far-fetched in the current circumstances.

On the political level, the researcher considered that any development in this regard would be linked to a change in Washington or Moscow’s stance. Naturally, this stance change could escalate events in the Syrian arena.

Reviving an old path

Since December 2022, Turkey has shifted away from its anti-regime position and its opposition to normalization with it. Turkish diplomats and politicians, including the country’s president, have made statements courting the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad.

During 2023, Russia and Iran tried to sponsor negotiations to make progress in the rapprochement path between Turkey and the regime, but the high demands from both sides prevented any progress in the path.

With the outbreak of the war in Gaza, the priority of the Syrian file retreated in Turkish political corridors until it returned to the forefront at the beginning of this June, coinciding with talks about a Chinese-Iraqi initiative to bring Ankara and Damascus closer.

 

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