ALEPPO, Syria — Russian forces in Syria recently announced the Syrian government was opening several crossings with the Syrian opposition in Idlib in northwestern Syria in order to facilitate the return of the displaced.
Deputy director of the Russian Khmeimim air base in Latakia Maj. Gen. Vyacheslav Sitnik said Feb. 15 in a statement to the Russian state-owned Ria Novosti news agency, “Syrian authorities will open three additional crossings [allowing] residents to leave Idlib due to the deterioration of the economic situation there and shortage of medical assistance.”
“The Syrian authorities, with the help of the Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria, have been preparing for opening crossings from Saraqeb, Miznas and Abu Zendin for those who wish to leave Idlib through the de-escalation zone,” he added.
The announcement raises many questions about its seriousness and timing and as to the locations of the crossings to be opened. Questions also arise about the possible gains the regime and its allies are seeking to achieve through this move. Would the thousands of displaced Syrians react positively to this announcement?
In fact, on Feb. 22, the Syrian regime announced the official opening of the Saraqeb-al-Tronba crossing in eastern Idlib, in cooperation with the Russian Reconciliation Center of Syria.
The crossing will allow the passage of displaced persons wishing to return to their villages and towns in the de-escalation zones in Idlib’s countryside, Hama and other areas in Idlib, according to the regime.
However, Damascus accused the opposition of preventing the displaced from access to the crossing, which the opposition denied and said that not a single person has crossed through since its opening on Feb. 22.
The Russian general’s statements suggest the three crossings are supposed to connect the regime areas with the opposition areas in the Idlib and Aleppo countrysides.
The Saraqeb crossing already exists but is usually limited to military operations through which Russian forces pass to conduct joint patrols with the Turkish army on the international M4 highway connecting Aleppo and Latakia. The crossing is located at the intersection between the M4 and M5 highways, east of Idlib province.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) tried to open commercial crossings between its areas of control and the regime areas following the signing of the cease-fire agreement between Russia and Turkey on March 5, 2020. At first, HTS attempted to open a crossing between the regime-controlled town of Saraqeb and HTS-controlled Sarmin for commercial movement in April 2020; it failed in the face of popular pressure, which refused to have a commercial crossing with the Syrian regime.
On April 30, 2020, HTS announced the opening of the Miznas crossing connecting the opposition and the Syrian regime areas in the northeast of Idlib, between the towns of Miznas and Maaret al-Naasan. The crossing remained open for a short period of time before it was closed down again in light of popular anger and discontent and due to demonstrations against HTS’ decision.
The third crossing is at Abu Zendin, which is located near the city al-Bab in the northeastern countryside of Aleppo, within the areas under control of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) supported by Turkey, which runs it from its side. The crossing is open to commercial movement between the regime’s and the FSA’s areas in the countryside of Aleppo.
Syria’s Response Coordination Group issued Feb. 17 a statement in response to the Russian announcement about opening crossings with Idlib. The group denied the Russian Reconciliation Center’s allegations about the economic deterioration and lack of medical care in Idlib.
Mohammad Hallaj, the director of the group, told Al-Monitor, “The Russian announcement appears serious. Through the operation of these crossings, Russia seeks to improve the poor economic situation afflicting the Syrian regime by facilitating the flow of goods from opposition-held areas to the regime areas. It is also an attempt to circumvent the sanctions imposed by the Caesar Act — and this is the contrary of the Russian general’s statements that opening the crossings is due to the poor economic situation in Idlib.”
“This announcement can be considered part of the preparations for the presidential elections scheduled for mid-2021. The regime and Russia want the displaced to return so they can benefit from them during the vote and to send a message to the international community that the Syrian regime was successful in returning the displaced to their areas and that Idlib is left with armed groups only,” Hallaj said.
The spokesman for the FSA’s National Army, Maj. Yusef Hammoud, told Al-Monitor, “The Russian announcement to open crossings for the exit of civilians from Idlib is an attempt to pressure Turkey and factions and to make a political stance.”
Russia’s announcement coincides with the recent intensive steps by the regime-affiliated General Secretariat of the Idlib province — in the areas the regime took control of as part of the de-escalation zone between May 2019 and late February 2020 — to attract the displaced.
On Jan. 24, the regime-affiliated Idlib Provincial Council transferred its temporary headquarters from the city of Hama to its new temporary headquarters in the city of Khan Sheikhoun in southern Idlib.
On Feb. 8, Idlib Gov. Mohammad Nattouf made extensive tours of villages and towns in the Idlib countryside to celebrate the resumption of certain services and the inauguration of service departments that had been restored, including support units for farmers and dispensaries. Nattouf also inaugurated a drinking water pumping station in the town of al-Tah southeast of Idlib. The opening of these services in the areas under the control of the regime aims to show the areas are ready to welcome the return of the displaced who had fled their homes during the Syrian regime forces' and allied militias’ advances in Idlib’s countryside last year.
In the event the three crossings were open for the passage of civilians as well as for commercial traffic, this would be a positive step for the regime in several aspects.
First, the move would allow the flow of Turkish goods into the regime-held areas, which are much needed in light of the economic sanctions, notably construction material such as cement, iron, fabrics, spare parts for factories and plants, as well as food commodities such as rice, sugar and oils.
Second, the opening of crossings would allow the flow of foreign currencies, most importantly the US dollar, into the regime-held areas through trade exchanges, which also benefits the Syrian regime.
Third, the return of the displaced to the regime’s areas in the surroundings of Idlib would serve as a good steppingstone for the regime.
It appears, however, that there is no desire among the displaced population in the camps to return to their areas or to respond to the calls of the regime and Russia to open the crossings. The matter is extremely complicated for them, as they believe the opening of crossings and resumption of services in their destroyed areas are merely false allegations on the part of the regime and that once they are back, they would face reprisal at the hands of regime forces and their allied militias, whether through arrests or killings. These militias are heavily present in these areas and towns.
On the opposition side, HTS could benefit from the opening of crossings if operations were strictly limited to commercial exchange with the regime without allowing the passage of civilians. The large numbers of displaced in Idlib serve as a trump card for HTS, Turkey and the FSA, which they are trying to keep for this period in time. Thus, it is unlikely that HTS would allow civilians to use these crossings to pass to the other side.