The Damascus-Aleppo Highway and Stabilizing Northwest Syria

The imminent reopening of the Damascus-Aleppo M5 highway is a milestone in the 17-month Astana process that started in January 2017 and is spearheaded by Russia, Iran, and Turkey. While these influential powers are enforcing new dynamics in northwestern Syria, they are also normalizing an irregular situation that could ultimately renew confrontations between rival parties on the ground.

The opening of the Damascus-Aleppo highway and its side roads is having a positive economic impact on both regime- and opposition-held territories for the first time since 2012.

There are strategic implications and economic benefits for opening the M5 highway, which links northern and southern Syria, including the political capital (Damascus) to the economic capital (Aleppo). Both the regime and the armed opposition will reap the economic benefits of what before 2012 was the major trade route between Syria and Turkey. The M5 highway starts from Damascus and traverses the key areas of Harasta, Homs, Hama, Murak, Khan Sheikhoun, Maarret al-Numan, and Saraqeb before reaching Aleppo. A distance of nearly two thirds of the Damascus-Aleppo highway runs through territories held by the Turkish-backed armed opposition.

The Astana Process and the M5 Highway

The opening of this highway in northwestern Syria is a by-product of the Astana process. It links the territories controlled by the Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian regime to those controlled by the Turkish-backed armed opposition. Border areas with Turkey west of Jarablus, under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), remain outside these understandings, mainly because of Turkish objections. The decision to reopen the M5 highway was reiterated in the ninth round of the Astana talks that were held May 14-15 in the Kazakhstan capital.

Russia began simultaneously to push for setting up observation posts and reopening key roads along the highway after helping the Syrian regime make significant territorial gains in recent months. For the first time since 2013, controlling the suburbs of Damascus last April allowed the reopening on May 15 of the Harasta highway that links Damascus to Homs. Last January, regime forces also took full control1 of the southern outskirts of Aleppo and, in May,2 the northern outskirts of Hama including the city of al-Rastan, which opened the Homs-Hama highway.

Once the regime and the opposition shared access to both sides of the highway from Aleppo to Murak, the tripartite powers of the Astana process began efforts to secure and reopen the Damascus-Aleppo highway. In May, the Russian defense ministry published an updated map of the 29 observation posts on the border of the de-escalation zone to monitor the ceasefire in northwestern Syria, which included 10 points by Russia and 7 by Iran around Idlib, deployed in parallel to 12 points by Turkey inside Idlib. Sixteen of these 29 observations posts are along the Damascus-Aleppo highway. Iranian-backed militias cleared3 the southern environs of Aleppo in May and moved to the Jabal Azzan base in southern Aleppo, which paved the way for Russian forces to set up observation posts in this area. The three principals of the Astana process established a liaison contact in these posts to ensure a continuous exchange of information to detect violations and prevent hostilities.

The unresolved territorial disputes leave the situation in northwestern Syria volatile.

Along the 16 observation posts on the M5 highway, Russia, Iran, and Turkey opened side roads and crossings between the areas held by the regime and those held by the opposition. The most significant one is the Murak crossing in the northern outskirts of Hama, linking the governorates of Idlib and Hama, which opened4 last November after a tacit agreement between the Syrian regime and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). However, in February the Turkish-backed Syrian Liberation Front (LSF)5 took control6 of Murak from the HTS. This move is part of a larger Turkish push to weaken the HTS’s influence in Idlib.

Along the observation posts in the southern areas of Aleppo, another crossing opened7 in April between the HTS-held town of al-Ays and the regime-held town of al-Hader, in addition to two crossings near the Abu al-Dhuhour area in the southern outskirts of Idlib, Tal al-Sultan and Tal al-Touqan crossings. A similar arrangement was also reached last December by opening8 the road between al-Bab city in the eastern borders of Aleppo, under the control of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), and the regime-held city of Aleppo. This road directly links the FSA areas on the Turkish border to the Syrian regime areas without going through the SDF-controlled Tal Rifaat. Russia sanctioned the SDF to keep control of Tal Rifaat as a buffer zone between the FSA in Afrin and the Syrian regime in Aleppo. The Turkish military operation in Syria, code-named “Olive Branch,” concluded last March after the FSA controlled the border areas west of Jarablus, including Afrin.

The Economics of Reviving Road Infrastructure

The opening of the Damascus-Aleppo highway and its side roads is having a positive economic impact on both regime- and opposition-held territories for the first time since 2012. The rehabilitation of roads is revitalizing the economy and allowing reconstruction efforts to begin in northwestern Syria. Moreover, the regime has eased the shelling and lifted the siege on some opposition-held areas, such as those in the northern outskirts of Homs. Incidentally, the Syrian regime might use as side roads9 the tunnels that the armed opposition groups have dug out under the Harasta highway during the war. Trade across these roads is lowering the price of goods while addressing the challenge of food and energy shortages. It also allows the population in the opposition-held areas to move freely and securely, which might encourage businesses to open along the Damascus-Aleppo highway.

The benefits of reopening these highways, for both the regime and the opposition, are significant. The Damascus-Aleppo highway is a better route for the regime than the longer and dangerous Khanasser-Athria road southeast of Aleppo. Importantly, the Hama-Idlib road is one of the busiest for the transportation of goods on the Damascus-Aleppo highway. Indeed, there are only two regime checkpoints10 at the Murak crossing, which reduces the customs fees compared to other crossings, where the regime can have dozens of checkpoints. The 4th Armored Division, led by General Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother, is playing an active role in imposing11 these high fees, most notably in the areas where these forces deploy in Hama, Homs, and the Syrian coast.

Warlords are now in control of the economy by imposing customs fees in return for the protection of goods.

It is noteworthy that the trade exchange facilitated by the regime and the opposition, using the Syrian pound, is more lucrative for the opposition than the business transactions with Turkish merchants using US dollars. Moreover, both the regime and the opposition gain from bypassing the high customs fees imposed on trade crossing into Kurdish-controlled territories, most notably if originating from Turkey. To that end, opening the al-Bab crossing mitigated the economic toll on residents in the opposition-held areas in the northern and eastern outskirts of Aleppo.

Unofficial coordination is occurring between the regime and the opposition on multiple fronts, as both sides impose fees to secure protection for merchants crossing into their territories until they reach their destination. In some cases, there are multiple checkpoints imposing multiple fees; this reflects the various factions seeking to gain profits from the transactions. The fees are typically set based on the nature of the goods and their weight.

The regime is benefiting from these transactions that export local products to opposition-held territories, and through these territories to Turkey. The limited local market of the regime no longer meets the supply rates of the Syrian economy, and these business transactions ultimately raise the price of the Syrian pound compared to the US dollar.

Challenges Ahead in Northwestern Syria

Reopening the M5 highway is not merely about traffic and goods transportation; it has long-term implications for Syria and its neighborhood. There are three overarching challenges facing Russia, Iran, and Turkey as they continue their efforts to stabilize northwestern Syria.

    1. Unresolved territorial disputes. The unresolved territorial disputes leave the situation in northwestern Syria volatile with violence that can be renewed at any of these checkpoints, observation posts, or crossings. Turkey is at the center of these uncertainties, which can be divided into three categories: Idlib, Turkey and the Kurds, and the regime and opposition.After Raqqa, Idlib is the second governorate that the regime has not controlled since March 2015. The fate of this area remains the biggest unknown in northwestern Syria. The 29 observation points are preventing violence in the short term, but there are no local or regional guarantees that confrontations will not take place inside or outside Idlib. The HTS, which the United States recently labeled as a terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaeda, has so far given up control of key border crossings to the LSF and FSA while facilitating the Turkish decision to set up observation posts in Idlib. The Turkish role in Astana is protecting the HTS from a Russian-led military campaign. Formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, the HTS is running multiple crossings a few meters across from the Syrian regime in the southern outskirts of Aleppo. Ankara might be unable to build a unified military structure for the Syrian opposition inside Idlib if the HTS remains active. While Turkey will most likely not confront the HTS, the status quo in Idlib will remain volatile in the foreseeable future.

      Turkey must also find a way to live with the Kurdish presence on its border with Syria. While Ankara is lauding the agreement with Washington regarding Manbij, this will not resolve Turkey’s Kurdish problem east of Jarablus. Another factor that might lead to Russian-Turkish tensions is Afrin, as Moscow wants the Syrian regime to deploy in this area. On April 10, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan responded to Moscow’s call to withdraw from Afrin by affirming that “when the time comes, we will give Afrin to the people of Afrin personally, but the timing of this is up to us, we will determine it, not Mr. Lavrov” (i.e., Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov). The SDF-controlled Tal Refaat will require another difficult compromise between Moscow and Ankara.

      The territorial dispute between the regime and the opposition continues to present risks. The de-escalation zones set up last year did not prevent the Russian-backed Syrian regime from making significant territorial gains in recent months. There are also tensions between the armed groups in Idlib about these crossings. While the HTS wants to open al-Rashidin crossing with the city of Aleppo under regime control, the Nour al-Din al-Zenki movement is defying12 this move. Moreover, on May 28, the opposition armed groups resisted an attempt13 by regime forces to advance in Hama. The regime and the opposition are now meters away in certain crossings, and this increases the risks of confrontation despite the observation posts.

Russia’s expanding influence in northwestern Syria, in concert with Turkey and Iran, is leaving the United States with limited options.

  1. Legalizing a black market. While the trade exchange is stabilizing the situation in the short-term and giving the various parties an incentive to avoid confrontation, it is also tacitly legalizing a black market and an irregular situation. Warlords are now in control of the economy by imposing customs fees in return for the protection of goods. Residents in both the regime and the opposition areas are paying an extra cost for consumption and are depending on these warlords for survival, which is leading to protests14 in some instances. This irregular situation is inviting violence from third-party disrupters; for example, in March, a mob kidnapped15 the person in charge of the Murak crossing. While these crossings are providing relief in the short run, institutionalizing them will lead to a black market that will not benefit all Syrians.
  2. Reducing the chances of conflict resolution. The various parties of the conflict could adjust to this irregular situation, which would reduce the likelihood that they would engage in a peace deal. There is no incentive for Idlib to reach wider conflict resolution if it means surrendering their autonomy to the regime. Kurdish forces will remain invested in their areas without engaging the various Syrian factions on the ground. Turkey is gradually expanding its influence in the northwest and will exercise veto power on any resolution that contradicts its interests. The Syrian regime is revitalizing its economy; hence it can sustain the status quo while the main security agencies are benefiting from collecting customs fees.

Despite all these new dynamics, the United States remains the last needed piece of the puzzle to stabilize northwestern Syria. Washington’s major contribution—and test—in northern Syria would be to manage the tensions between Turkey and the Kurdish forces without taking sides, a balance Washington has yet to achieve. To be sure, the way the Manbij plan is executed will impact stability negatively or positively along the Turkish-Syrian border. For its part, Ankara is edging closer to Moscow and Tehran, but it will need Washington to contain Kurdish forces. Indeed, Russia’s expanding influence in northwestern Syria, in concert with Turkey and Iran, is leaving the United States with limited options.

1 Source is in Arabic.

2 Source is in Arabic.

3 Source is in Arabic.

4 Source is in Arabic.

5 The LSF was formed last February after a merger between Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zenki as well as other smaller groups.

6 Source is in Arabic.

7 Source is in Arabic.

8 Source is in Arabic.

9 Source is in Arabic.

10 Source is in Arabic.

11 Source is in Arabic.

12 Source is in Arabic.

13 Source is in Arabic.

14 Source is in Arabic.

15 Source is in Arabic.