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Peripheral issues: Syria's ever-changing borders Open in fullscreen

Rami Sweid

Peripheral issues: Syria's ever-changing borders

Kurdish and extremist groups are looking to redraw Syria's borders [AFP-Getty]

Date of publication: 20 November, 2014

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While war rages in Syria's interior, the country's borders have also been the scene of fierce fighting - as rival groups seek to control crossings for arms, money and prestige.

Control of the border crossings linking Syria to the outside world have been the scenes of some of the heaviest fighting during the uprising against the regime. Most of these checkpoints closed as the war moved on into yet another year, while security for Syrians continues to deteriorate.

With so many exits blocked, hundreds of thousands of Syrians are forced to use people-smugglers to escape to the relative safety of neighbouring countries, forking out huge sums of money and taking similarly huge risks with their lives.

After fighting broke out in Idlib between opposition groups Ahrar al-Sham on one side and the Army of Islam and Suqur al-Sham aligned on the other, Turkish officials closed the Bab al-Hawa crossing in a bid to keep the violence contained to Syria.

Control to survive

Bab al-Hawa has become a financial and logistical lifeline for many Syrian opposition groups operating in north-western Syria. The crossing is also critical to the civilians of Hama and Idlib who rely on Turkish goods and food for their survival.

Following its closure, officials at the Bab al-Salama border crossing, in the northern Aleppo countryside region, said citizens should postpone all non-essential trips to Turkey.

According to activist Marwan al-Halabi, the appeal came after hundreds of travellers were forced to spend up to two nights at the Bab al-Hawa border before reaching the Turkish side.

It is not the first time Ankara has closed crossings due to fighting on the Syrian side of the border. In February 2014, the Tal al-Abiad border crossing, north of Raqqa, and the Jarablus border crossing in the eastern Aleppo countryside came under the control of the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS) after combatants seized two border crossing terminals from the Free Syrian Army in heavy fighting.

Swapping hands

For the second year in a row, Ankara has closed border crossings linking largely Kurdish areas of Syria's north-east to Turkey. The Ras al-Ain and Qamishli border crossings have also remained closed for more than a year and a half.

This has forced civilians in the area attempting to reach Turkey into the hands of traffickers. The power of smugglers operating between Turkey and Syria has grown significantly over the past three years.

     The power of smugglers operating between Turkey and Syria has grown significantly over the past three years.

Al-Araby al-Jadeed spoke to Ismail Sharif, a Syrian activist, who said that the Qamishli border crossing is only opened in exceptional circumstances, such as to allow United Nations aid convoys to pass.

Syrian regime forces control only one other border crossing.

Regime troops retook Khassab, north of Latakia, from opposition fighters in May but the crossing remains closed as diplomatic relations between Damascus and Ankara have been severed.

Borderless territory

In the swathes of territory that the IS group controls, even borders between Iraq and Syria have been done away with. In June, when IS seized Anbar and Mosul, the group used bulldozers to flatten sand barriers that once marked the Syrian-Iraqi border.

The IS group has also allowed petrol smugglers to use a road in Iraq that runs parallel to the Syrian border. Goods and foodstuffs move between Iraq and Syria without hindrance in this area.

Qaim border crossing has also seen barriers between Iraq and Syria removed by the combatants. Syrians and Iraqis can now cross between the two sides freely, without travel documents, or customs duties being collected on the goods they carry.

The Yarubia border crossing between Iraq and Syria remains closed for the third year in a row. Control has swapped hands between the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPD) and the IS group repeatedly, although over the past three months, the territory has been under Kurdish control.

Meanwhile, Kurdish Peshmerga forces fighting in the name of the Kurdish regional government in Erbil control the Iraqi side of the Yarubia crossing. Political disputes between the YPD and Peshmerga on how to run the crossing have reportedly affected operations.

The Semalka border, also in Kurdish territory, remains closed, except in "humanitarian cases" such as allowing refugees, medical patients, students, and aid convoys to pass.

     Thousands of civilians have been forced to make a treacherous crossing into Jordan through harsh desert.

Connecting to Jordan

In the south of the country, Syria is linked to Jordan through Daraa and Nasib. Opposition forces took control of the Daraa crossing more than seven months ago, with the Jordanian government responding by closing their side of the border.

This has forced thousands of civilians from southern Syria to make a treacherous crossing into Jordan through harsh desert, using "guides" who charge huge amounts of money for their services.

Regime forces still control the Nasib crossing, to the east of Daraa, which runs as normal. Dozens of trucks carrying goods from Lebanon pass through this border every day.

"Regional powers have put pressure on opposition forces in Daraa to refrain from attacking the Nasib crossing, because Jordan relies on it to import foodstuffs and raw materials," said an insider, who declined to be named.

The Quneitra border crossing, located in the occupied Golan territory, is effectively a buffer zone administered by United Nations forces. It came under opposition control two months ago, and these groups have made significant progress in capturing regime territory from bases in the area.

Syria's border with Lebanon has remained firmly under regime control. While the rest of the country's border posts are marred by violence, the roads to Lebanon remain unhindered - allowing thousands of Syrians to travel to Beirut, as though the war was happening in some distant land.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

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