A truck in Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)-held Idlib province loaded with cross-line United Nations humanitarian aid coming from Damascus, 17/9/2022 (Syrian Response Coordination Group)
IDLIB — Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the hardline opposition group in control of much of Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, is working to open a land crossing with regime-held territory in the eastern Idlib countryside.
On September 29, HTS launched a surprise attack against a military point held by the National Front for Liberation faction in Idlib’s Mujayzir village because the point overlooks the area of a planned crossing: the road between the HTS-controlled city of Sarmin and regime-controlled Saraqeb.
The National Front for Liberation retook the point the same day, but it expects “HTS will resume its attack if it insists on opening the crossing,” said Saif Abu Omar, a spokesperson for the faction. “HTS has finished preparing the site of the crossing and the road leading to it,” he told Syria Direct, denying his own faction had anything to do with the crossing.
HTS previously opened a trade crossing with the regime in Maarat al-Naasan, northeastern Idlib in April 2020, but closed it a day later in the wake of public pressure. In protests that broke out against the crossing at the time, HTS security forces killed one civilian and injured others.
Syria Direct reached out to the HTS press office for comment regarding the motives for opening the latest crossing, but did not receive a response as of the publication of this report. A communications official at the press office of the HTS-backed Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), the executive authority in the faction’s areas of influence, denied the SSG had anything to do with crossings.
However, when the Maarat al-Naasan crossing was briefly opened in 2020, HTS said it was for commercial purposes. “Exporting gives the ability to import, and without exporting, the population of the liberated areas would live on aid alone,” Said al-Ahmad, an official at the SSG’s General Administration of Crossings, said at the time.
He added that five percent of the area’s needs come from regime areas, compared to 95 percent from Turkey, while the opposition-controlled north exports 50 percent of its surplus products, 90 percent to regime areas and 10 percent to Turkey.
“Closing the crossings and not looking for an outlet for the area’s products means that goods pile up, which will push people to stop agricultural production,” al-Ahmad was quoted by the HTS-linked Ebaa News Agency as saying at the time.
Ibrahim al-Hosni, 36, has lived in the northern Idlib town of Killi since 2019, when he was displaced from his hometown in southern Idlib. He opposes opening a crossing with regime areas. “It is natural for me to reject dealing with the one who displaced me from my city, Kafr Nubl,” he told Syria Direct.
Opening a trade crossing between HTS and Damascus-held areas, “which are suffering from great economic hardship, embodied in the unavailability of many basic goods due to the American and international sanctions,” would help the Damascus government, said al-Hosni, who works at a civil society organization in Idlib.
“We should not support the regime, which displaced us and fought us with everything, even our daily bread,” he said, mentioning regime sieges of “Madaya, Darayya and East Ghouta.”
But Jihad al-Omar, who lives in Idlib city after being displaced from the Jabal al-Zawiya area of southern Idlib, supports opening a crossing. “Smuggling activity from regime areas to Idlib and vice versa increases the price of goods smuggled into the Syrian north,” he told Syria Direct. “Medicines are the most important items smuggled in.”
Al-Omar also hopes that a crossing, if opened, would not be limited to commercial traffic, but rather be open “to civilians wishing to travel between regime and opposition areas.” A crossing would “make their movement easier and reduce the costs and the amount of risk through smuggling routes,” he said. Opposition-held northwestern Syria is a destination for Syrians wishing to leave regime areas to escape conscription or to migrate to Europe.
He said this perspective is one increasingly shared by others in the province, adding that he notices “a decrease in the intensity of rejection” of the idea of a crossing with regime areas. “People have accepted the fait accompli, or maybe they’ve changed their point of view, as I changed mine,” he said.
Al-Hosni, while opposed to a crossing, acknowledged that “commercial exchange with the regime could lead to appeasement with the regime,” as HTS-held areas are periodically bombarded.
Opening a commercial crossing with regime areas could be “a positive step for Idlib traders,” said Ibrahim Sheikh Ahmad (a pseudonym), who works as an accountant at a feed trading company in Idlib.
The nature of Idlib and manufacturing activity in it “does not allow it to export its production to regime areas,” but it could be a “transit center for consumer and industrial goods imported from Turkey and European countries to regime areas,” Ahmad told Syria Direct.
On the other hand, residents of northwestern Syria could be negatively affected by the opening of a crossing with the regime, as “if it were opened, it would lead to an increase in the prices of some basic items,” Ahmad said. He cited “our past experiences with opening crossings—as demand increases, prices go up.”
Still, a new crossing “would provide additional job opportunities in Idlib’s local markets due to additional commercial traffic, which requires an increase in the number of mechanisms and [a larger] workforce,” he added. HTS would also benefit financially, “because it will impose transit taxes on goods in dollars, along the lines of the rest of the crossings it currently operates,” Ahmad said.
For example, the fees for a truck loaded with 26 tons of barley to pass through HTS-controlled crossings are around $185, al-Ahmad said. That includes $75 in fees for the truck office at the crossing, $52 for the loaded goods at $2 per ton, $15 in customs clearance fees, a $10 fee to support local education and $10 for a manifest.
In terms of exports and imports, “there won’t be a great benefit for the opposition, which does not have large-scale production activity, which causes it to look for outlets for its local production,” said Manaf Kuman, an economic researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies.
Accordingly, Turkey could be the “biggest winner” from opening the crossing, as opposition areas would “just be a transit point for Turkish imports,” Kuman said. “Regime areas could experience an economic recovery, with the flow of goods, services and hard currency through taxes and fees for passing through the crossings,” he added.
But at the same time, economic researcher Younes al-Karim warned, opening a crossing between HTS and regime areas “will increase the volume of drug smuggling operations from regime areas.”
From borders to contact lines
Recent talk of opening a commercial crossing with the regime came as the latest round of humanitarian aid trucks provided by the World Food Program (WFP) entered Idlib via Damascus. Some 16 trucks entered HTS-held areas on September 17 through the Tarnabeh-Saraqeb crossing, bringing the total number of such aid trucks to 30 since Security Council Resolution 2642 of 2022 was adopted in July.
Opening a new crossing will not impact the delivery of cross-line aid from Damascus, according to Mohamad Katoub, an expert in humanitarian response and the protection of aid workers in Syria. “Aid is tied to a political decision, and when the Russians decide to use their veto power to force aid to pass through the regime to northern Syria, they do not wait for there to be a crossing, be it commercial or humanitarian,” he said.
Beyond that, yearly international discussions of renewing the Security Council resolution authorizing the cross-border delivery of aid to Syria “do not depend on what is happening on the ground, or people’s needs,” Katoub said.
While opening a new crossing across contact lines with the regime in Idlib “won’t affect the future transfer of the humanitarian aid file into the hands of the Syrian regime,” it “indicates an acceptance of opening crossings by the actors, including the Syrian opposition on the ground, for any purpose whatsoever,” according to Katoub.
Economics researcher al-Karim added that “the regime is pushing for crossings to be opened” while its ally Russia seeks “for UN aid to be [delivered] through Damascus, using the veto.” Opening a new crossing would also signal to Ankara “that the areas to which refugees are to be returned will be protected from shelling,” he said. Ankara announced an eight-phase plan for the “voluntary return” of one million refugees to Syria earlier this year.
Talk of a new crossing also comes as “the regime promotes the return of people displaced from cities and villages close to the contact line,” such as Maarat al-Numan and its eastern countryside, to “turn the page on the war in this area,” al-Karim said.
On top of that, opening a crossing would “allow for commercial exchange between Turkey and the regime, not only at the level of governments, but between traders,” he added, which would “circumvent the US Caesar sanctions law.”
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.