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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Syria's porous borders

The recent Syria-Jordan border opening signals a regional acceptance that Assad has won the war

Druze men at the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights look out across the southwestern Syrian province of Quneitra. AFP
Druze men at the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights look out across the southwestern Syrian province of Quneitra. AFP

Jordan opening its border with Syria could set a precedent for other neighbours of the war-torn country. But the current status of Syria's borders illuminates the complex web of alliances that have become entangled during the seven-year civil war.

Of Syria's five borders, three remain partially or completely closed to Damascus. Outside of government-controlled areas, some crossings are managed by rebels or forces loyal to Iran.

In some cases, neighbouring countries turn a blind eye to rebel-controlled crossings. Turkey and Iran have favoured backing non-state actors as a way to promote their interests in the war without direct state involvement.

Governments opposed to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad fear that the reopening of official border crossings, like the Jordanian one, may signal recognition of his legitimacy and a willingness to ignore his regime's brutality in winning the war.

On the other hand, reopening border crossings could allow the importation of greater humanitarian aid and provide the first step to normalcy for millions of Syrians both inside the country and abroad. Open borders would also boost trade networks across the Arab world, as Syria has long functioned as a hub with spokes spanning from the Mediterranean to the Gulf.

The reopening of Jordan’s border earlier this week will be particularly welcomed by Damascus, as the Hashemite Kingdom is a major producer of pharmaceuticals, the import of which is likely to ease some of Syria’s humanitarian wores.

Jordan also plays host to a huge number of Syrian refugees and migrants. Many fled violence when the war broke out in 2011, while others have worked for decades between the two countries. The reopened border promises an avenue of return for some of the 1.4 million refugees living in Jordan.

The Jordan border reopening also offers relief to Lebanon, which relies on Syria for all its onward land trade, since it has no contact with Israel. During the war, Lebanon’s border with Syria has remained open, though some crossings are reportedly controlled by Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group. “The Syrian-Lebanese border has been business-as-usual throughout the conflict, controlled by the Syrian authorities and the Lebanese authorities with heavy involvement by Hezbollah,” explained Lina Khatib, head of Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House.

Commercial trade has continued in both directions during the war, while Hezbollah has also exported contraband to Syria. “Hezbollah’s control makes the border porous, which is essential for Hezbollah to maintain its military superiority in Lebanon and also conduct its activities in Syria,” said Dr Khatib.

Lebanon relies heavily on exports to boost its ailing trade deficit. A significant portion of exports is to GCC countries, which have high demand for Lebanese produce and animal products.

East of Syria, Iraq’s borders remain porous but officially either closed or heavily-controlled by government forces and sub-state actors, including Iranian forces. Much of this terrain was until recently under the control of ISIS. The militant group no longer controls large population centres, though much of the area formerly under its control is now held by various militias.

With the US concerned about Iranian expansion into the Levant however, Iraq’s borders with Syria remain officially closed. “Tanf crossing is closed, and held by Syrian rebels backed by US troops, as US wants to deny a land route to Iran over Iraq and Syria via Tanf,” said Aymenn Al Tamimi, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum.

North-east of the Tanf crossing, Al Bukamal border is controlled by Syrian government forces with a heavy Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps presence. This week Iraqi foreign minister Ibrahim Al Jaafari said there was “no justification” for delays in reopening the border.

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Northwards, the third crossing with Iraq, Rabia, is held by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and leads from Syria to the autonomous Kurdish Region of Iraq. It remains closed, though an informal border crossing operates at Feyshkabour, which is occasionally subjected to closures at the whim of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Most of Turkey’s border crossings remain officially closed, but Syrian rebel control of some border areas allows for the covert passage of goods and weapons. “The Syrian-Turkish border is largely under the oversight of the Turkish authorities and the Syrian rebel groups that Turkey sponsors under the National Liberation Front umbrella. Vital goods continue to pass through the border for transport to Idlib. This gives the NLF groups economic clout,” said Dr Khatib.

Until recently, the Bab Al Hawa crossing was the main avenue by which anti-government forces imported materiel to support operations against pro-Iranian forces in Idlib. But when they retreated from the area last year, control of the border was relinquished to Turkish forces.

Turkish authorities now limit the control of non-humanitarian goods through the border. “As for Bab Al Hawa, the flow of goods into Syria via that crossing has faced more restrictions, though not cut off entirely, on account of the fact Hayat Tahrir Al Sham is considered a terrorist group,” said Mr Al Tamimi.

The other major northern border crossings are controlled by Kurdish-led SDF, which Turkey blockades on account of its links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which it considers a terrorist organisation.

Bab Al Salama, east of the Bab Al Hawa crossing, is controlled by rebels backed by Turkey.

“The Turks are more comfortable with operations of the latter since it is in a zone occupied by their troops, and there are occasions when the crossing is opened for Syrian families in Turkey to visit their relatives in north Aleppo countryside,” said Mr Al Tamimi.

Syria also shares a border with Israel, which occupies the Golan Heights. Crossings there recently reopened for UN observers. The peacekeepers left the Quneitra crossing in 2014 for the first time since deploying there in 1974 to monitor a ceasefire and a demilitarised zone.

Jordan’s move to open its border – while benefiting Syria's economy and people – will also have lasting political implications. By seeming to legitimise the Assad government, it will likely set the stage for further official border reopenings.