The events in this piece took place in September 2017 and follow a journey taken by Mustafa Haid, the head founder of the Syrian NGO Dawlaty from Turkey to Aleppo’s northern Rif. At the time of travel, each of the areas travelled through, from Azaz to Efrin to Idlib’s western Rif to Aleppo’s northern Rif, was controlled by a different group, with visible consequences and distinctions. We are publishing this piece to provide a ground-based perspective on how different rebel-held territories in Syria are secured and governed by different groups.
The Journey: armed presence and organisational structures
Upon leaving Turkey, you crossed through Bab al-Salameh and Azaz. Who was in control of those areas and what were the local security dynamics that you observed there?
The Bab al-Salameh crossing on Syria’s border with Turkey was controlled by al-Jabha al-Shamiyya at the time of travel (it has since been handed over to the Syrian Interim Government). Upon entry, I provided my passport to border patrol in order to register a date of return to Turkey. Due to the many visas on the passport, including most noticeably a US one, I was referred to the security office. There, the main concern appeared to be ensuring that I was not a journalist and ascertaining my reasons for travelling to Syria. Security officers also expressed concerned regarding my upcoming passage through Kurdish areas, which they referred to as PKK areas – a key reflection of Turkey’s influence in the area. I was eventually allowed to pass.
Once in Azaz, the presence of multiple military factions became evident, although the green flag of the Syrian revolution was prevalent throughout. These include Military Commandos, who are Syrians trained in Turkey and who act as the local police (without having to report to al-Jabha al-Shamiyya). The multitude of armed factions in the area naturally heightens tensions, and explosive devices are occasionally planted at different checkpoints as a form of settling scores between al-Jabha al-Shamiyya and the Military Commandos, for example.
There was also heightened military presence around the office of the Syrian Interim Government and the local council in Azaz, which are located next to each other. Three Turkish Wulat (governors) have also been appointed to the region, one for Kilis, one for Azaz and one for the crossing. Turkey’s visible presence in Azaz is amplified by such examples as members of the media registering with al-Jabha al-Shamiyya but having to wait for permission from Turkey in order to obtain an access card.
You then went to Efrin, which is controlled by the PYD. How did the situation there differ from the first area you crossed through?
With the exception of the border crossing, which is run by al-Jabha al-Shamiyya, all checkpoints within Azaz are controlled by Special Forces trained in and paid for by Turkey. This includes the checkpoint between Azaz and Efrin, which I then reached and passed, continuing to a PYD-controlled checkpoint. There, I got searched and had my ID card checked on a computer. All travellers were then gathered at the checkpoint and split into categories such as families, single men, those travelling by taxi versus ‘service’. The driver of the chosen method of transport then gathered passengers’ ID cards and kept them for the duration of the journey. Passengers were also required to pay an accompaniment fee of 2,000 SYP.
Once several cars were full, they gathered into a convoy that was accompanied by PYD soldiers to the next checkpoint to exit PYD areas. The soldiers were both men and women, and along the route pictures of [Abdullah] Ocalan [the PKK founder] were clearly visible. The cost of the taxi was determined at the last checkpoint, and passengers were given their ID cards back and had their identities checked. The taxi driver also had to pay 1,500 SYP to the PYD at the final checkpoint. There also appeared to be a fortress with a tower of reinforced cement under construction on a small mountain there, overlooking areas under the control of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). A large buffer zone is present between the PYD and HTS areas and there is no fighting between them. However, there is shelling from Turkey into Kurdish areas at night.
In addition to travellers, there is also an active commercial and trade route between al-Jabha al-Shamiyya and PYD areas in the day time, although fire is occasionally exchanged in the evenings. Common goods are cement and fuel; however, trucks can only move as far as the last checkpoint in Azaz, similarly to how people travel, before the goods are moved across the checkpoint to a different waiting car that will transport them through Efrin. The same process is repeated in HTS areas, and taxes appear to be paid throughout.
Affairs in PYD-controlled areas appear to be tightly controlled. Anyone not from Efrin is not allowed to enter the city, while those living in the city require special permission to leave it. The police and soldiers present are colour-coded, with differences between traffic police, accompanying soldiers, etc. Car rents are defined by checkpoints, and food prices at rest stops were pre-defined by the PYD supply office (Maktab Al-Tamween). Fines are also enforced for any cars that attempt to overtake others in the convoy. Additionally, drivers with work in Azaz are only able to enter with a kafala (guarantee), which lasts for seven days – similarly to buy property.
This strictness had an impact on local sentiment, with taxi drivers in these areas complaining about not being able to leave, and also arguing that Azaz and neighbouring areas were under Turkey’s control and that Turkey was only involved in fighting there because the residents are Kurds. However, there were no further details on service provisions within these areas due to an inability to travel within it.
You then crossed Checkpoint Zero, this time controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Was there visible presence for HTS there?
Cars operating within Efrin had Kurdish license plates with R.S. (Rojava) markers and the Kurdish flag. In the neighbouring area after the last checkpoint from Efrin, different cars with different licensing and registration operated from a garage. From there, travellers were driven to Checkpoint Zero, which is located in Darat Izza and controlled by HTS. Once again, ID cards were checked on computers before all travellers got dropped off directly after the checkpoint and the cars returned to the pre-checkpoint garage. In Checkpoint Zero, there appeared to be a mixture of Syrians and others on guard. Taxis/service paid a fee to the post-checkpoint garage before transporting travellers for a similar fee to a central area called Sarmada, where travellers may continue travel in other vehicles to Idlib city, Atarib, and others.
Once through Checkpoint Zero, none of the other checkpoints in the neighbouring areas controlled by HTS stopped them. No music was played in those areas, and walls were covered in graffiti supporting HTS and echoing Islamist sentiments. Flags of HTS were prevalent in their areas, but there was no noticeable local police presence, unlike in 2014. The areas thus seemed quite chaotic. On exiting, there was a big buffer between the HTS area and the Faylaq al-Sham checkpoint, with no flags or slogans displayed, and no armed presence there. The car to Atarib was not searched as it passed a checkpoint controlled by Faylaq al-Sham (although in the past it used to be) and then allowed to enter the town.
Service provisions and local councils
After Checkpoint Zero you crossed Rif Idlib and Rif Aleppo. What was daily life like there?
The closing of the Bab al-Hawa crossing by Turkey has led to local residents expressing frustration at the inability of supplies to pass through, and claiming that Turkey pretends to be against the Kurds while smuggling arms and sustenance to them in order to keep the conflict between them going. People feel further squeezed by the increase in prices of goods such as fuel and cement due to the fees levied against them at checkpoints. Some see this as the beginning of a siege being enforced by Turkey and view HTS as cooperating with both Turkey and the Kurds (referred to as PKK by all individuals encountered) to that end.
This sentiment is expressed across the areas of Azaz, PYD-controlled areas, and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham controlled areas and is aggravated by the border crossing closure. The local populations[said] that they felt that eventually Turkey, Russia, and the regime will reach a deal to hand those areas over to the regime. And in the meantime, they feel as though the armed groups are just taking advantage of them and taking their money without providing any services. They resent and criticise the open commercial lines between these areas as they do not see them as being for the benefit of the people, only the parties in power.
And who was involved in service provision in Azaz?
In Azaz, Turkey seems to be involved in all areas of service provision, from providing salaries for teachers, police, and even Sheikhs, to supporting bakeries and local media. While local residents are happy that services are being provided, they are concerned about getting caught up in Turkey’s conflict with neighbouring Kurdish areas and also want to resist what they see as Turkey’s attempt to win them over through service provision since it was unable to gain direct control as it did in Euphrates Shield.
This is further reflected in a smaller example: speed bumps were installed on roads without any of the local residents being informed, so in the first week of installation many had their cars damaged. The dissatisfaction from this incident has remained because residents were not prepared for the change and not consulted, and felt that it has been forced on them by Turkey.
Your final destination was Atarib in Aleppo. Who is in charge of governing the area and what’s locals’ take on neighbouring areas controlled by HTS?
In Atarib, an unarmed police presence is visible, the souk is pedestrianised, and roads are clean. Local councils provide water to houses twice a week for a fee of 1,000 SYP through fixed pathways; the fee also covers the cost of street cleaning. Since bakeries were targeted, residents no longer go there and instead local councils distribute bread. There are also two functioning courts, one belonging to Atarib and one to HTS. Nonetheless, there are shortcomings. Unlike the functioning solar panel street lighting in Azaz, the solar panels in Atarib have either been stolen or broken. While the civil police are uniformed, they are unarmed and as a consequence are not always taken seriously. These indicate that the US funding programme that was responsible for these initiatives has not followed through. However, public sentiment is broadly positive due to the prevalence of local control.
The local council in Atarib is overseen by a Public Authority composed of representatives of all town families. Although the council is marred by complaints of corruption and sectarianism (so-called ‘familial bias’), residents continue to pay the water tax of 1,000 SYP/month. The small proportion of people who don’t pay get taken to the police station where they eventually pay. This all gives the local council some degree of legitimacy and stems from the fact that residents view the local council as a point of resistance to HTS and want to continue having locals running it, despite criticisms. This emphasis on locals is further seen in attitudes towards armed entities. Local residents consider those from Atarib as locals, regardless of whether they are armed or civilians, and therefore checkpoints run by locals are not seen as a power play by an occupier.
By contrast, local sentiment in neighbouring areas controlled by HTS such as Kafr Karmin is more negative. The local council is run by members of HTS, and HTS collects fees for issuing building permits and providing services such as water. Unlike Atarib, where the council is composed of locals, this results in local residents feeling that they are being taken advantage of by outsiders and resent having to pay them. Residents there don’t even refer to the entity as a local council as they do in Azaz or Atarib, calling it ‘Hay’at’ [as in, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, HTS] instead. Therefore, here people view this not as service provision but rather as an assertion of power and control by an external body.