Ankara reopens Idlib border crossing as Turkish soldiers build presence in northern Syria

AMMAN: Turkish authorities reopened the Bab al-Hawa border crossing in Idlib on Wednesday, allowing “the usual flow of goods that was in place before infighting shut down the crossing two months ago,” Mazen Aloush, a spokesman for the civilian-run administration on the Syrian side of the crossing, told Syria Direct.

Dozens of commercial trucks loaded with construction supplies and food streamed into Idlib province from Turkey on Wednesday, Aloush said. The border reopening allows Turkish goods to flow directly into the opposition-held corner of Syria, where authorities were “unloading the merchandise” on Wednesday, the border spokesman said. “Now supplies are coming in, whereas last month they were forbidden.”

Clashes erupted across Idlib province in July between rival Islamist groups Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) and Ahrar a-Sham, after a reported dispute over Ahrar’s use of the Syrian revolutionary flag. Amid the infighting, HTS wrested control of the Bab al-Hawa crossing, prompting Turkish authorities to close it completely. Today, HTS remains Idlib’s ruling rebel alliance.

The Bab al-Hawa crossing into Idlib was once a major exchange point for goods—and, to a lesser extent, civilians—travelling between Syria and Turkey. When it closed in August, cement, food products and Syrians themselves looking to enter and exit Turkey could only travel through the Bab a-Salamah crossing roughly 60 kilometers northeast of Bab al-Hawa. The route from Bab a-Salamah into Idlib ran through Kurdish-controlled territory in rural Aleppo, and required the payment of tolls at checkpoints before reaching rebel-held Idlib.

Bab al-Hawa border crossing on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Bab al-Hawa Border Crossing.

“Bab al-Hawa opening again means the prices of goods are lower,” a source from the opposition’s Syrian Interim Government told Syria Direct from Idlib province. He requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. During the closure, “one ton of cement brought in from Turkey cost up to $100,” the source said. “Cement coming in from Bab al-Hawa costs $55 per ton.”

As of Wednesday, civilians were not yet permitted to travel through the crossing, said Bab al-Hawa spokesman Mazen Aloush.

Turkish forces in Idlib

Idlib is now home to an estimated two million residents—many of whom fled there from elsewhere in Syria. HTS—led by former Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah a-Sham—controls the vast majority of the province in accordance with its hardline interpretation of Islam.

In September, an agreement between Turkey, Russia and Iran in Astana, Kazakhstan made Idlib province the fourth and final “de-escalation zone” in Syria to be implemented since Russia first announced the plan in May.

Under the terms of September’s Astana agreement, “checkpoints and observation posts” manned by Turkish, Russian and Iranian forces were to be set up along the perimeters of Idlib province to prevent battles between regime and rebel forces, according to a statement released by Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Just days later, regime and allied Russian forces unleashed a punishing airstrike campaign across the province’s southern countryside, Syria Direct reported at the time.

Still, Turkish forces are carrying out their role in enforcing the ceasefire, a commander from one Ankara-backed rebel militia in northern Idlib told Syria Direct on Monday, requesting anonymity.

Ankara “started setting up [observation] posts” just across the Syrian border in rural northern Idlib and neighboring Aleppo provinces last week, the commander said. He named at least three “military bases” and “five posts” now established by Turkish forces in the region.

The observation posts are located in rebel-held countryside spanning northern Idlib and Aleppo. At least three of them overlook Afrin canton, a roughly 2,000 sq. km pocket of territory governed by the majority-Kurdish, semi-autonomous Self-Administration.

The movement of Turkish military personnel inside northern, rebel-held Syrian territory is raising questions in north Syria of Ankara’s true motive along Syria’s northeastern border.

Earlier this month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that a “serious operation” by Ankara-backed Syrian rebels was underway in Idlib province, and that Turkish forces would participate, the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News reported.

The operation, Erdogan told attendees at a political conference in eastern Turkey, is aimed at preventing a “terror corridor” along Syria’s northwestern border with Turkey.

Ankara views the Self-Administration as linked with the PKK, a separatist pro-Kurdish group waging an armed insurgency inside Turkey for the past 30 years.

One Kurdish citizen journalist in Self-Administration territory says he fears the observation posts could pose a threat to Afrin, considering Ankara’s stated anti-PKK stance.

“I won't hide my fears with regard to Turkey's reckless policy in the region as a whole, and especially against Kurdish areas,” Azad Maamou, a Kurdish citizen journalist in Afrin told Syria Direct.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last week that Ankara’s goal is to “prevent conflict” in Idlib province, Turkish state media outlet Anadolu Agency reported. He did not mention the Turkish presence in Kurdish territory.

“There will be no integrity shown by the occupying Turkish army,” Hassan Beirem, president of Afrin’s Interior Council told Syria Direct in a statement on Wednesday. “The Turkish state depends on a policy of provocation for all Kurdish people.”

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.