AMMAN: Much of the remaining rebel presence in Syria is concentrated in two pockets of the county’s northwest, where small cities and countryside towns intersperse with sweeping tracts of farmland.
One of the pockets spans Idlib province and neighboring parts of Hama and Aleppo to the south and east. There, the hardline rebel coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham is the dominant military and political force. To the northeast, in the northern Aleppo countryside, Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army factions rule a second pocket of territory after driving out the Islamic State in 2016.
Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have driven out opposition fighters from most urban and industrial centers throughout the country, leaving rebels and the civil institutions that support them largely sequestered in the northwest and economically dependent on four commercial crossings that fall along Syria’s 950km border with Turkey.
For nearly three million residents of these two rebel-held enclaves, the commercial crossings with Turkey mean an influx of food, medicine, clothing, fuels and building supplies, among other goods. For the rebel factions, the crossings represent an economic opportunity.
By 2014, Turkish exports to Syria had returned to pre-war levels, totaling an estimated $1.8 billion that year, according to a 2017 report by the French Institute of International Relations, a Paris-based think tank. The large volume of commercial trade through rebel-held crossings means that factions and civil authorities can make thousands to tens of thousands of dollars per day charging customs duties of $100 to $200 per freight truck.
This potential for profit makes border zones flashpoints for rebel infighting in both Idlib province and the territories controlled by Turkish-backed FSA factions. In northwestern Syria’s largely agriculture-based economy, the revenue-accruing crossings are a prize for rebel factions.
The four border crossings in Syria’s rebel northwest—Bab al-Hawa, Bab a-Salama, a-Rai and Jarablus—not only sustain the rebel factions themselves, but also the civil and municipal institutions that lend them legitimacy in the region.
Bab al-Hawa border crossing, north Idlib province
As the sole commercial crossing for the province, home to an estimated two million residents, Bab al-Hawa is “the main lifeline for opposition-held territory in and around Idlib city,” Mazen Aloush, the head of the crossing’s media office, tells Syria Direct. The six other border crossings in Idlib province—including Khirbet al-Joz, Harem, Darkoush and Atma—are now either shuttered or authorized only for medical evacuations and the delivery of humanitarian aid.
Rebel militias aligned with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) first seized control of Bab al-Hawa from the Syrian government in mid-2012. The Syrian-Turkish border crossing sits roughly 35 kilometers north of Idlib city, connecting Idlib province with the city of Reyhanli in Turkey’s Hatay province. Then, in December 2013, the Islamic Front, a largely Salafist rebel coalition including Ahrar a-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, wrested control of the border crossing from FSA factions that had been operating it.
Ahrar a-Sham maintained control over Bab al-Hawa when the Islamic Front dissolved in 2015 and established a civilian administration for the border crossing in April of that year, Syria Direct reported at the time.