Who is controlling the Syrian border crossings?
The UN Security Council’s resolution to allow the entry of aid to Syria without the government’s permission raises many questions regarding the feasibility of its implementation, given that a number of border crossings are not under the Syrian state’s authority. Many are controlled by different factions, according to their region of control and ability to face the other armed militias in the region. There are many non-regime crossings which are considered as dangerous to cross as the other dangers in the conflict of this country.
A tour of the border crossings reveals the state of these areas and the parties controlling them.
In the south, Nasib crossing is considered the official main crossing to Jordan and is still under the Syrian state’s control. Jabhat al-Nusra tightened its grip on the Gumruk crossing, pushing Jordan to close it down and ask the members of the Free Syrian Army [FSA] in the Daraa countryside not to move toward Nasib crossing so that Jabhat al-Nusra does not take it over.
There are non-regime crossings in west Daraa [southern Syria], the main two being at Tell Chehab and Badiya in Suweida. The latter faces the Jordanian city of Ruwayshid, where the members of the Jordanian intelligence and armed groups are deployed to make it easier for refugees to pass, for weapons to enter and for the leaders of the FSA to move around. However, the Jordanian authorities have closed these crossings many times.
The border crossings with Lebanon seem to be in relatively better condition. The Jdaidet Yabws, Arida, al-Dabousiya and Jousiya points are under the control of the Syrian government and therefore under tight security measures. Jdaidet Yabws-Masnaa crossing is considered the most busy due to daily commuters to Lebanon and those traveling through to Beirut International Airport. The unofficial crossings stretch from Zabadani [northwest of Damascus, near the Lebanese border town of Anjar] and Madaya in Wadi Barda through Assal al-Ward in Qalamoun [near the northeast Lebanese border], Yabrud and Qarah and reach Arsal and Toufeil in the Lebanese territories, in addition to the crossings in the southern suburbs of Homs in Qusair, mainly Tell Kalakh.
The "emirates war" has flared up between "declared" and "undeclared" [Islamist] emirates in Syrian territory, at a time when control on the ground is changing. Judging by the developments of this conflict, the bloodiest chapters will be seen in the next phase.
The Syrian events are moving toward a new stage, especially in relation to the fighting between jihadist factions.
The developments are oriented toward the formation of separate emirates in various areas, in a way that each faction or group of factions assumes the rule of its own emirate. The bordering emirates either agree, disagree or fight with each other, which will bring the Syrian crisis to a new level and escalate its complexity. This is particularly the case in light of regional and international military, logistic or commercial support that some emirates enjoy. International backers are assisting to further their policy of hostility toward the Syrian regime and to implement the policy of partition that is still threatening the map of Syria.
Regardless of whether Jabhat al-Nusra's leader, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, has announced or has the intention of announcing the establishment of his Islamist emirate — there was a conflicting interpretation of the audio message that was intentionally leaked — the policy of Jabhat al-Nusra undoubtedly indicates it is trying to exert its control over a piece of land where it will have the final word.
Clashes have been taking place between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Free Syrian Army brigades for a week now in the countryside around Idlib, close the Turkish border, and are nothing more than evidence of this attempt to gain control. Even though it has tried to mask its real intention under the pretext of chasing thieves, which was also used by the Islamic Front when it declared war on Liwa al-Tawhid in Marea in the countryside of Aleppo.
The emirate of Jabhat al-Nusra will not be the only one declared de facto. The Kurds have established an autonomous administration in the Kurdish areas of Hasakah and Qamishli, where they have direct bloody contact with the Islamic State (previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham or ISIS). The two sides have engaged in fierce battles for several months now.
The true face of Jabhat al-Nusra has been revealed after it failed to conceal its true motives. This was due to pressure on the ground, which has put its existence at stake following a major loss in Syria’s eastern region.
The movement has made considerable efforts to compensate for the loss, even if the price was to drop its mask and show its real face — a face that is similar, to a large extent, to its archenemy the Islamic State (IS).
Reports suggest that Jabhat al-Nusra’s new policy of fighting other factions under the pretext that they are mufsideen [evildoers] is similar to the general approach of al-Qaeda International. This has been applied in many countries depending on the developments on the field.
In the framework of a policy of confrontation, Jabhat al-Nusra continues its fight against other factions in the countryside of Idlib. In this context, yesterday [July 22] the group seized control of the city of Haram on the border with Turkey. The city serves as an important strategic location and as a border crossing to smuggle oil, among other products, following short and mild clashes with factions affiliated with the Syria Revolutionaries Front, which led to their withdrawal.
Jabhat al-Nusra also controls the towns of Salqin and Azmarin and had previously seized the areas of Hafsarjah and al-Zanbaqa, among other regions, in the western countryside.
Two weeks ago, the group started what it called a "campaign to cleanse the north of bandits and thieves"’ referring to the Free Army factions and those close to the National Coalition, which the movement sees as a collaborator with the United States.
However, the actual goal behind the campaign in the north is to fulfill Jabhat al-Nusra's search for funding to compensate for the loss of the oil fields in Deir ez-Zor.
Mosul has never been as empty of the country’s original Christian inhabitants as it is today. Everything related to Christianity is at risk of being ruined and looted by the members of the Islamic caliphate who have used the second-largest Iraqi city as their headquarters. This city is considered one of the oldest residences of Iraqi Christians.
Thousands of Christians fled the city in the past few days, in the wake of the Islamic State (IS) warning. According to witnesses, messages were communicated to Christians through loudspeakers in mosques last Friday [July 18], demanding that they leave the city by Saturday noon and reminding them of the IS statement confirming that whoever does not leave will be killed. The Christian families left Mosul before the end of the time limit, leaving behind their properties and houses. They headed to safer Christian villages in Ninevah under the control of the peshmerga, and to the Iraqi Kurdistan Region.
According to photos published by activists from Mosul, no trace of Christians was left there. Crosses were replaced with IS banners, and all churches were either closed or burned down.
Mosul Archbishop Botros Moushi, who is in Qaraqosh close to Kurdistan, said that Mosul’s city center is almost completely empty. He told As-Safir that IS militants sent for them to discuss the matter before their departure, “but we did not go because we lost faith in everyone. They fooled us and told us at first that they don’t have a problem with us, then they accused us of apostasy.”
Arab politicians, mainly Sunnis and followed by other Islamic sects, whether in power or in the opposition, as well as Christians in general, have woken up to the Islamic State phenomenon (IS, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS). They used to describe ISIS as “armed gangs,” but now IS has declared statehood in Iraq and Syria and named its leader the caliph of Islam.
That declaration upended the entire Levant, especially since IS quickly took over Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul, whose population is close to 3 million if the suburbs are included. This filled the large “vacuum” from Raqqa in eastern Syria to Tikrit in northeastern Iraq.
The Kurds directly benefited from the breakdown of the central authority in Baghdad. They immediately grabbed Kirkuk province and started intimating that they would declare independence in their own “state,” an old Kurdish dream.
Disputes erupted inside the central authority in Baghdad, politically and religiously. Iran, Turkey, the United States and Russia awoke to a new danger that threatens to shred the region’s map. The Gulf states were shaken, and Saudi Arabia saw the new threat creeping from the north.
There was renewed talk about new maps for the region in light of the new threat: an Islamic state that would erase the border between “the states spawned by colonial countries.”
Advanced countries have long resolved the debate over the state and its system: The republics are republics, kingdoms are kingdoms, and change, when it happens, targets the rule, not the state or the system itself. But in the Arab countries, the nature of the “state” is still a matter of contention.
The status quo remains within the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. The Qatari-Saudi settlement spared both factions of the coalition fierce phantom battles, as supporters of the Saudi wing and Ahmad Jarba obtained the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) presidency, in return for the Qatari-sponsored Mustafa al-Sabbagh’s faction receiving all other posts, comprising the external broader framework of the Syrian political opposition.
Nasr al-Hariri was elected secretary-general, while the first vice president's post went to Abdulhakim Bashar, to placate the Kurdish National Council and provide the coalition with a Kurdish quorum, as Noura al-Amir was elected second vice president, and Mohammad Qaddah third vice president. The latter two, as well as Hariri, are considered to be closely associated with Sabbagh and Qatar.
Hadi al-Bahra received 62 votes, and led his closest rival, Mowafaq Nayrabiyeh by 20 votes, while the third candidate, Walid al-Omari, only managed to secure three votes cast in his name in the coalition’s ballot box.
Michel Kilo came out the biggest loser in this competition after backing Nayrabiyeh for the leadership of the coalition. His Democratic Bloc, which he formed last year, suffered great divisions, with the Saudis deciding to marginalize him. This came following their decision to back the reorganization of the coalition and their attempt to take the control thereof from the Qataris a year ago, by forming an alliance that brought Kilo together with Jarba.
In Deir ez-Zor, the displacement, collective punishment and threats of ethnic cleansing are accompanying the emir of the Islamic State (IS), formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in Syria's Kurdish north.
In Shahil, Khisham and the countryside around Deir ez-Zor, 150,000 civilians have fled their homes, in what was a reconciliation and repentance agreement that IS turned into a collective punishment in the villages, which Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Mujahedeen Shura Council had turned into fortified strongholds for the soldiers fighting Baghdadi.
Thousands of displaced [peope] have left for the camps in the desert around the Euphrates. IS forced the population to surrender its weapons, repent for fighting and pledge allegiance to the caliph, Baghdadi. It then added an article to the agreement stipulating that the population leave the towns and villages, to make sure that they were free of any fighters or ambushes. So far, no one has returned from Khisham, although the 10-day time frame given to those who have been forced to leave their houses has ended. The same fate awaits the 83,000 tribal people living in al-Shuaitat. The tribes that renewed their allegiance to Joulani still refuse to leave the villages that Baghdadi warned their population to evacuate.
In Raqqa, thousands of IS fighters are deployed around the Kurdish self-administration region in Ain Arab ("Kobani" in Kurdish). The battle in Kobani is not only about seizing the center of the Kurdish region, and the canton linking the east of the Kurdish region in Amouda, Derbassiyeh, Qamishli and Hasakah to its west in Afrin — the battles fought by Baghdadi’s forces have managed to cleanse the Kurdish villages of their populations, which were estimated at 700,000 in Kobani and its countryside. [Within a] few hours, thousands of Kurds left their homes in the eastern and western countryside of Kobani, of which parts have turned into battlefields. This was while the Baghdadi soldiers executed 16 civilians to force the others to flee. Over the [next] few hours, an alliance consisting of 500 fighters of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Jabhat al-Akrad (the Kurdish Front Brigade) managed to contain the attack by IS fighters.
There have been some leaks about an alleged voice recording of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri giving his opinion about the announcement of the caliphate in light of Sharia and jurisprudence.
Regardless of whether this is true or false, the announcement of the caliphate is starting to leave its mark on the jihadist body around the world.
During the past few days, following the announcement of the creation of the Islamic caliphate and the appointment of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as “caliph of the Muslims,” the media reported on all the pledges of allegiance to Baghdadi from different factions in different countries.
Do all these pledges of allegiance indicate a real expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and a new chance for it to move to countries other than Syria and Iraq? Or is it simply a publicity campaign that aims to amplify the announcement and double its effects?
There is no doubt that ISIS had a wide network of relations with different jihadist factions in plenty of Islamic countries. Despite the fact that these relations went through a radical phase caused by the dispute between ISIS and the worldwide organization of al-Qaeda, they did not end completely.
ISIS leaders took advantage of the bonds that were still strong between them and some leaders of jihadist organizations to convince them to join their group or their caliphate. ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed Adnani issued a call asking all al-Qaeda branches around the world for their opinion concerning the group and the dispute with al-Qaeda. This call was met with silence from top-tier leaders in these factions, except for the Caucasus Emirate, which did not fear stating its support for Jabhat al-Nusra.
Thus, it was not very odd that the statement made by a group from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), led by Abu Abdullah Othman al-Assimi, condemned the silence of the leaders of their organization. This pushed the group to film a video, in which it declared its support for ISIS and pledged allegiance to Baghdadi as caliph of the Muslims.
Despite the fact that AQIM leaders did not answer Adnani’s call, they took a stand that might have repercussions on their relations with ISIS in the future. ISIS took advantage of the recent events in Iraq and the progress made on the ground by the jihadists, to take the initiative of reconciliation and the settlement of disputes. The group asked “the jihadists, especially the ISIS jihadists, to seize these chances, this wind of victory, for affinity, gathering, letting go of the past clashes and conflicts and opening a new page with their brothers,” calling for “communication between them and religious scholars, symbols of the jihad movement, because the nation is only reconciled with the reconciliation of the scholars and the emirs.”