US-Russian Competition and the M4 Highway in Syria

The M4 Highway that cuts through Syria’s most strategic areas has come to symbolize the struggle of foreign powers in the war-torn country. Russia, the United States, and Turkey each have a share of control in this critical highway and are struggling to de-escalate military tensions as they continue to compete in the country. The stakes cannot be higher for Russia to consolidate its control over Syria by securing the M4 Highway and opening it for trade and travelers. This is a critical time since the new US “Caesar Act” sanctions on the Syrian regime came into effect on June 17.

This highway is vital to regional trade and to Syria’s economic survival because it passes through strategic areas from east to west, linking the Iraqi border with the coastal plain on the Mediterranean. The crude oil produced in the Jazira region ships via the M4 Highway, as do wheat and cotton transported from the fertile agricultural areas. For Russia, securing the M4 Highway means restoring some normalcy to the Syrian economy by paving the way for the reconstruction process and trade with neighboring countries. Russia’s objectives also include linking and protecting military bases in eastern and western Syria. Moscow’s tactics have so far included a mix of negotiation and mediation with concerned parties, selling it as a win-win outcome for all—at the same time engaging in major military confrontations and heavy bombing of civilian areas.

The United States also has a stake in securing the M4 Highway because it is vital for territories dominated by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and provides a stable environment for the American-controlled oil fields in the area. Additionally, Ankara is a major actor that will play a decisive role in the status of the M4 Highway. While US and Turkish interests are increasingly aligned, the strong relationship between the SDF and their US backers will remain a sticking point between Ankara and Washington. By making inroads east of the Euphrates River, Ankara’s top priority remains keeping a grip on major roads that connect Kurdish-controlled areas in eastern Syria, hence undermining the emergence of an interlinked autonomous Kurdish territory on Turkey’s southern border. The ability to disrupt the M4 Highway at any time also gives Ankara a bargaining card in negotiating with Moscow, most notably on the fate of Idlib governorate in northwestern Syria.

The renewed Russian eagerness to open the M4 Highway has now become part of the larger context of the US-Russian competition, most notably east of the Euphrates River.

Russia, Turkey, and Iran are expected to hold a meeting in the coming weeks to discuss their cooperation on Syria, and the M4 Highway is definitely on the agenda. The Astana process that continues to bind these three powers was meant to reopen Syria’s international highways; to be sure, it remains a volatile process despite the strides made in the last three years. However, this renewed Russian eagerness to open the M4 Highway has now become part of the larger context of the US-Russian competition, most notably east of the Euphrates River.

Where Things Stand on the M4 Highway

In an attempt to restore some normalcy, on May 25, Russia reopened the M4 Highway for the first time in seven months. This could potentially help the Syrian regime mitigate the impact of the Caesar Act sanctions. The M4 Highway runs from the town of Yaarabiya on the Iraqi border and passes through the governorates of Hasaka (Qamishli and Tal Tamr), Raqqa (Ayn Issa), and Aleppo (Manbij, al-Bab, and Aleppo city). The M4 and M5 Highways intersect between Aleppo and Saraqeb (Idlib governorate), before splitting in Saraqeb into two roads: the first leads to Latakia on the coastal plain via Ariha and Jisr al-Shugour, while the second travels through the capital, Damascus, before ending in Daraa governorate on the Jordanian border in the south.

Based on this military landscape, the M4 can be divided into two legs:

    1. The Hasaka-Aleppo Road

This area, primarily under control of the SDF along with some Syrian regime and opposition forces, stretches from Yaarabiya on the Iraqi border to al-Arima west of Manbij. American, Russian, and Turkish forces and/or military points are placed on or near the M4 Highway. The October 2019 Turkish incursion into Syria altered the dynamics in this area as there is no longer exclusive US presence east of the Euphrates River. As a result of the US-Turkish agreement over Syria that October, after Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Ankara, as well as the deal after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Russia, Turkey made inroads in border zones controlled by the SDF while Russian and Syrian regime forces moved to fill the vacuum left by the US withdrawal on the Turkish border east of the Euphrates River.

When it comes to the M4 Highway, this military shift was translated in three ways. First, Russian influence moved into Manbij, which previously was a contentious issue between US and Turkish forces. Second, US troops had to face the reality of coexisting with Russian forces in Hasaka governorate along the border with Turkey, which led to some tensions between the two earlier this year. Third, Turkey and the opposition—for the first time—claimed areas east of the Euphrates River after Kurdish forces withdrew 30 kilometers away from the Turkish border. As a result, between Ayn Issa and Tal Tamr, Syrian regime forces are on the right side of the M4 Highway moving eastward, and opposition troops are symmetrically on the left side near the Turkish border. Syrian regime units thus became a buffer force between Turkish/Syrian opposition forces and the SDF.

On May 27, US and Russian forces started the first joint patrol on the road that passes through the most important oil fields east of the Euphrates River such as those in al-Sweidiyyeh and Rmeilan in Hasaka governorate. This military coordination is meant to ease the recent tensions between both sides east of the Euphrates River and will most likely continue despite the recent implementation of sanctions by the Caesar Act.

While US, Russian, and Turkish forces are seeking to coexist [on the Hasaka-Aleppo] leg of the M4 Highway, cease-fires could potentially collapse at any time.

While US, Russian, and Turkish forces are seeking to coexist in this first leg of the M4 Highway, cease-fires could potentially collapse at any time. For instance, the area between Ayn Issa and Manbij remains vulnerable to Turkish attacks, given Ankara’s intent to push SDF fighters away from its border and potentially extend the buffer zone from Ayn Issa all the way to Manbij. Syrian regime forces have claimed1 that they prevented US forces from passing through areas northwest of Hasaka governorate twice this month, which most likely happened with Russian consent.

    2. The Aleppo-Latakia Road

Russian, Turkish, and Iranian forces have presence in the second leg of the M4 Highway, from east of Aleppo governorate to Latakia on the coastal plain. This road has four main parts. The first, around al-Bab city in Aleppo governorate, is controlled by the opposition forces backed by Ankara. The second is dominated by Iranian-backed militias; it goes through Aleppo until Saraqeb. The third extends through areas under the control of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), passing through Ariha and Jisr al-Shughour. In the fourth and last part, the M4 Highway ends in the Latakia governorate, the stronghold of the Syrian regime and Russian military assets, most notably the Humaymim Air Base.

After the latest round of hostilities, Russia and Turkey agreed on a cease-fire in Idlib last March and have since concluded 17 patrols along this part of the M4 Highway. But the cease-fire remains fragile, which makes the highway vulnerable to potential new waves of violence that could force its closure once again.

The most critical area is Idlib where the HTS leadership, for now, is cooperating to secure and open the highway for its own economic benefit. However, other Islamist groups are challenging HTS2 for its complicity in these agreements, which will leave uncertainty around the M4 Highway in the Idlib governorate. Turkey had to intervene to stop a protest3 organized by HTS against Russian-Turkish joint patrols as it comes under Russian pressure to act against HTS. Moreover, on May 27, a Turkish soldier was killed in an explosion on the outskirts of Jisr al-Shughour near the Aleppo-Latakia international road. Turkey brought reinforcements near Idlib this month and there is already talk of a new Russian offensive along Idlib’s M4 Highway. If under pressure, Moscow could attempt to seize control of Jisr al-Shughour and Ariha, and this will escalate Russian-Turkish tensions in Syria.

The M4 Highway after the Caesar Act

The M4 Highway, if fully opened, would allow the Syrian regime to diversify its revenues. As the state of the Lebanese economy worsens and Beirut cracks down—under US pressure—on smuggling into Syria, one of the consequences of the Caesar Act sanctions might require Damascus to rely more on the M4 Highway to trade (or smuggle) with SDF and opposition forces, in the areas they control, to secure the materials and goods needed for the regime-governed territories. Moving forward, these internal crossings, known for smuggling and customs fees as major sources of revenue for the concerned parties, will most likely continue, if not intensify their activities, given that the Caesar Act sanctions exclude trade of basic commodities, such as food and medicine, with the Syrian regime.

The Caesar Act itself does not have strong implementation mechanisms, most notably when it comes to smuggling inside Syria.

Moreover, the Caesar Act itself does not have strong implementation mechanisms, most notably when it comes to smuggling inside Syria. The United States will have to rely on full Turkish and Kurdish cooperation to enforce such a measure. Politically, Russia is already attempting to further advance the rapprochement between the Syrian regime and the SDF, which will most likely face a US veto if it reaches a turning point. Moscow is also seeking to expand its military footprint east of the Euphrates River and attempting to build ties with tribes in the Hasaka governorate, and this is making US officials increasingly anxious. Russia is reportedly trying to build a new force4 composed of tribal members in northeastern Syria, which could potentially compete with the US-backed SDF; however, these efforts have yet to succeed.

In return, the United States is focused on mediating between Turkey and the SDF, which is useless given the animosity between them. Washington is also mediating between Kurdish parties in Syria to consolidate its influence east of the Euphrates River and to prevent Russia from finding any potential allies among Syrian Kurdish parties. However, there are still challenges ahead before cementing an agreement between the Kurdish National Council in Syria and the Kurdish National Unity Parties, which include the Democratic Union Party (PYD) that has long operated in northern Syria.

Moreover, as US forces use the border crossing from Iraqi Kurdistan to send military and logistical reinforcement via Yaarabiya to the SDF-controlled area in Qamishli, there are questions regarding how the United States will use this access to Syria from Iraq. Washington is pushing the UN Security Council to allow humanitarian aid to enter Syria through the Iraqi border at Yaarabiya, under SDF control, and through two crossings on the Syrian-Turkish border, hence bypassing any obstacles from Russia or having to deal with Moscow at all. As this UN resolution expires on July 10, Moscow (and possibly Beijing) could veto opening border areas that are not under the Syrian regime’s control for humanitarian aid, a move that could represent a retaliation against the Caesar Act. Russia wants these border areas controlled by the SDF and opposition forces to incentivize trade with territories controlled by the Syrian regime instead of relying for instance on cross border trade with Iraq’s Kurdistan via the Yaarabiya crossing.

Moscow (and possibly Beijing) could veto opening border areas that are not under the Syrian regime’s control for humanitarian aid, a move that could represent a retaliation against the Caesar Act.

Moreover, Ankara is introducing the Turkish lira in the Syrian areas under its control after the devaluation of the Syrian lira and the imposition of fresh US sanctions. Turkey aims to have these zones economically connected to its economy rather than to other parts of Syria; the latest US sanctions might reinforce this process. However, there are challenges ahead as Syrians are protesting the high prices in Turkish liras of basic commodities that go through the M4 Highway. Ankara is facing two contradictory objectives: appease Russia and keep the M4 Highway open for trade and travelers or benefit from US sanctions to intensify the process of incorporating the Syrian territories under its control in the Turkish economy. Turkey might balance those two objectives until the United States or Russia begin to increase pressure one way or another.

In the broader picture, there is an ongoing race between imposing the Caesar Act sanctions and opening the M4 Highway. This presents both the United States and Russia with advantages and disadvantages going in, but it is the Syrians themselves who are most likely to pay a heavy price in the process.

Joe Macaron is a Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Joe and read his previous publications click here

1 Source is in Arabic.
2 Source is in Arabic.
3 Source is in Arabic.
4 Source is in Arabic.