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Syria’s internal border crossing key to power, revenues for government and opposition groups

The crossings inside Syrian territory divide the areas that fall under the control of rival parties, and are considered locations to prove control. They are also a key source of income for the party controlling them, as transit fees are collected for individuals, commodities and cars. They are also important trade exchange points for all parties. Deals are made for traders in different areas, and the necessary commodities are secured for each party. 

Each area has its own economic advantages. The areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are rich in oil, cotton and grains, while the opposition-held areas have plenty of vegetables, fruits, olives and animals. The government-held areas have basic commodities such as medication, tobacco, car parts and traditional foodstuffs. 

The crossings are also used by individuals to conclude administrative transactions and pay social visits to other areas. They are also used for negotiations between individuals and for business development. The future of the internal crossings in Syria is linked to the development of military actions on the ground.

Anas Shawakh, a researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies in Istanbul, told Al-Monitor, “Crossing points are the areas through which movement is ensured across different control areas. For the crossing to be official, representatives of both areas of control must be present on both sides of the crossing to organize work. The unofficial crossing or smuggling points are the areas or geographical locations through which individuals, merchandise and vehicles pass. They are not usually organized by the two parties in control of the areas, but by networks of smugglers. Since self-sufficiency cannot be fully implemented in the different areas of control in Syria, there had to be crossings between these areas to secure their needs.”

Shawakh said, “Because of the wide geographical stretch of the lines of contact between the regime areas and the SDF, there are more than 15 crossings between the two areas — and at least five of them are official. The rest are points of smuggling. They are: al-Tayha in Aleppo, Shannan in Raqqa; al-Houra and Shuheib al-Zekr in Raqqa; Dawar al-Matar and Dawar Marsho in Hasakah; and Salihiya and Jadeed Ekedat in Deir ez-Zor. The smuggling points between both sides are limited to Deir ez-Zor at the Mhaimida, Jadeed Bakkarah, Sobha, al-Bassira, al-Shahil, al-Talyana, Diban, Darnaj and al-Jurzi points. These crossings open and close depending on the military or security situation, or depending on the political mood of the conflict parties.”

He added, “Between the regime-controlled areas and those under the opposition, there are two commercial crossings only — Abu al-Zandin in Aleppo and Maaret el-Naasan in Idlib — and they are not functional due to the bad blood between both sides. There is only one crossing between the areas controlled by the opposition and those held by the SDF — Aoun al-Dadat in Aleppo, which is also the gateway between the regime and opposition-controlled areas, since the crossings between them are closed. Three smuggling points exist also between the two areas and these are Umm Jloud and Barad in Aleppo and Ayouwa in Raqqa.”

Abdul Menhem Halabi, a professor of economy at the Faculty of Economics at Gaziantep University in Turkey, told Al-Monitor, “The military divisions [in Syria] turned into economic divisions that helped factions and militias make huge financial gains while civilians’ burdens increased. The crossings led to building hidden economic ties between the conflicting parties. Syrian citizens were forbidden from using the crossings sometimes under ‘revolutionary or national’ pretexts from the rivals.”

He noted, “Meanwhile, shipping vehicles could cross between the areas. A network comprising members of opposition factions and regime forces as well as SDF fighters, smuggled families and youth who wanted to migrate to Turkey and Europe. This unprecedented human trade secured for the parties involved thousands of dollars per month through intermediaries. Through the crossings, the SDF imposes economic and social separation and makes gains in trade operations with the regime and opposition factions, earning them millions of dollars per month. With that, the Syrian people became prisoners of the different areas of military control.”

Since mid-2011, the Syrian government has sought to besiege neighborhoods witnessing opposition activity. The government left one or several outlets for these neighborhoods to communicate with their surroundings. It also controlled the movement of individuals and commodities. In early 2012, the siege expanded and became wider and more systematic. In most besieged areas, the strongest party was always the one that imposed the siege. The Syrian government often controlled the movement of humanitarian aid, commodities and people. In addition to the crossings that emerged due to the siege, others appeared between the different control areas that were first divided between government-controlled and opposition-controlled. Then, the areas under the control of the Islamic State and the SDF emerged.

Wissam al-Oklah, an assistant professor at the Political Science and International Relations Department at the Turkish Mardin University, told Al-Monitor, “The primary objective behind these crossings is to make money, even if at the expense of citizens. The more important aim is for these crossings to perpetuate the Syrian conflict. This is what all conflict parties on the ground want, since they do not use the revenues of crossings to improve the service situation of the area, but they benefit from the money themselves, especially when the crossings are used to smuggle antiquities, weapons and drugs abroad.”

He concluded, “The more crossings they control, the more gains they make and the more they need staff, weapons and equipment to control the borders with the other party. The crossings might help the stronger party in besieging the other area and controlling it.”

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