For the last two years, the war in Syria has focused on the country’s roads, leading some to coin the term the “Highway War”, referring to the M4 and M5 international highways that link the country east to west and north to south.
In addition to their logistical importance within Syria, these roads also have regional and international importance, as Syria is an essential crossing point between Europe and the Arab States and between the continents of Asia and Europe. The M4 highway, which traverses Syria from the Al-Ya’rubiyah crossing on the Iraqi border, is the most important thoroughfare for transporting goods from Iraq, Iran, Central Asia, and Russia to the Mediterranean Sea. At Saraqib, the M4 meets the M5, which links Syria to Europe via Turkey in the north and via Jordan, the Gulf, and Egypt in the south.
How the international highways feature in the main players’ geopolitical and economic calculations
The Syrian regime
The M4 highway is the main supply route in Syria, linking the various sites of grain, oil, and cotton production, manufacturing, consumption, and export in Aleppo, Damascus, and Lattakia. The Syrian regime hopes to restore Aleppo as the country’s economic capital by connecting it to areas of high consumption in central and southern Syria. Analyses suggest that reopening the M4 would accelerate and stimulate production in Aleppo.
In addition, reopening the route would allow transit between States in the region to recommence. This sector used to generate $3 billion each year, as 150,000 trucks from Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Gulf States passed through Syria. The regime hopes to increase the number of trucks to 500,000 and to generate more than $10 billion in revenue by raising transit fees and privatizing the international highways.
Assad’s regime also wants to rehabilitate his regional and international image by leaving the world no choice but to accept Assad’s legitimacy and by providing stability in the international transport of goods, thereby making him an important partner in international trade. Furthermore, the revenues generated would serve as a guarantee that would enable the regime to obtain loans from international banks and would revive the Syrian pound.
Both politically and practically, establishing control over the international highways would enable the regime to isolate opposition factions into small, ineffective pockets and — having gradually re-exerted control over Turkish-held areas near to the highways, with help from Russia — to prevent Turkey from having any further influence or power.
Russia’s interest in Syria’s international highways is evident, as the routes have been a central focus of all political agreement and military battles in the country. They even featured in the main clause of the recent Moscow agreement with Turkey, the aim of which was to ensure “safe passage” along the M4 to protect commercial operations. Furthermore, in article 8 of the 2018 Sochi agreement, the parties agreed to “restore transit via the international highways and to carry out Russian and Turkish patrols to protect commercial traffic.”
Through controlling the international highways, Russia aims to protect its investments in the Syrian phosphate, oil, and fertilizer sectors. Russia hopes to make Syria its trading platform in the region, particularly for wheat trading, as it is planning to build several silos for storing and distributing wheat in the region. The port at Tartus, which Russia has rented for 49 years, is at the center of its strategy. Russia wants to convert Tartus into a regional port, and is planning to raise its capacity from 12 million to 40 million tonnes per year. Russia’s ambition is to attract trade from Iraq and Iran, via the M4. There is also a possibility that Russia would privatize the highways and manage them through Russian companies.
From a political perspective, if Russia manages to seize control of the international highways in Syria, it will be able to announce the start of the reconstruction phase and serve as a guarantor to mobilize support from donor countries. Russia is also seeking to establish control over the border crossings through which international aid is entering Syria. The United Nations Security Council recently limited aid transport to the safe border crossings of Azaz and Bab Al-Hawa in Idlib until June. If Russia can control the international highways, it will be able to limit Europe’s ability to deal with the Syrian Government directly.
The M4 highway is essential to Iran’s activities in the region, as it is the quickest route to the Mediterranean Sea and it is safer than the road that cuts through the Syrian desert. Moreover, the route connects Iraq to Aleppo, where Iran’s largest military bases in Syria are located. The M4 will also run parallel to the oil and gas pipelines that Iran is planning to build to connect itself to the Mediterranean.
The M4 is therefore the ideal transit route for transporting Iranian and Iraqi products towards Europe and vice versa, thereby mitigating the impact of the US and international sanctions imposed on Iran. The participation of Iranian militias in recent conflicts in western Aleppo and Saraqib, which are connected to the international highways, reflects Iran’s desire to impose itself as an influential player in future arrangements regarding the routes and to prevent them from falling into the hands of Russia and Turkey, as Iran is aware of the geopolitical importance of these roads and of the role that they will play in the Syrian reconstruction process.
The M5 highway has been the most important artery of trade between Turkey and Syria since the signing of the 2004 free trade agreement between the two countries and the 2009 twinning agreement between merchants in Aleppo and Gaziantep. Turkey is looking to revitalize the economy of its southern states near to the M4 highway and of Gaziantep, where the M5 starts, and is planning to transport one million trucks to the Arab Gulf countries via Jordan.
By supervising the international highways, Turkey hopes to strengthen its hand in negotiations on Syria’s future and to secure itself a significant stake in the reconstruction process, especially in the construction sector, in which Turkey is a pioneer. Turkey also hopes to become a provider of the construction materials needed by the Syrian reconstruction market. Turkey will therefore not back down from the conflict over the highways, as it is aware that losing this battle will mean losing its stake in Syria.
The Syrian international highways are at the heart of China’s southern “Silk Road” project, which will run through Iraq, Syria, and Turkey to the Mediterranean Sea, before continuing on to Africa through Jordan and Egypt. Like Russia, China sees the continuation of the current regime as a way of ensuring that its project will be able to go ahead. It is therefore supporting the regime militarily, financially, and diplomatically (in the UN Security Council, China has used its veto seven times to block proposed resolutions criticizing the Syrian regime). China is looking to make Syria a strategic center and transit hub for transporting Chinese goods to Africa and the Arabian Gulf States, as part of its plans to complete its commercial hegemony over the world.
The M4 is important to the USA as it is the gateway to Iraq and the US military bases there. If the route falls under Russian control, US forces in Iraq will be vulnerable to siege by Russia.
The route also plays a major role in the US plan to block Iranian influence in Syria. Furthermore, if US forces can control sections of the route, in addition to the oil fields, the USA will have a say in negotiations on Syria’s future.
The map of control
During the war launched with the support of its Russian and Iranian allies, the Syrian regime took control of the entire length of the M5 highway, having wrested control over contested areas of the route between Aleppo and Hama from the hands of opposition forces. The regime is currently working to re-establish the same level of control over the route — which connects Aleppo to the Nasib border crossing with Jordan — that it lost during the war.
Although sections of the M4 remain outside their control, the Syrian regime and Russia benefited from the US withdrawal following the “Turkish peace process” in late 2019. They regained control over large sections of the route between Hasaka Governorate and Aleppo after Turkey and factions loyal to it withdrew from the areas under their control in accordance with the agreement with Russia, as part of which they committed to conducting joint patrols along the route.
The eastern sections of the route remain in the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), however, which have seized control of a 160-km stretch of land between Tal Tamr and the Al-Yaarubiyah crossing on the border with Iraq. Opposition factions, meanwhile, control a 55-km stretch between Saraqib and Jisr Al-Shugour. Nonetheless, Russia and Turkey have committed to restoring safe passage in the region, conducting joint patrols, and reopening the route to traffic.
Russia and the USA now clash almost on a daily basis over the M4, with Russia making relentless attempts to traverse the route and US forces intercepting Russian patrols and preventing them from seizing control of the road.
The conflict over the international highways of Syria is likely to dominate upcoming events, and there is an inherent risk that it will lead to direct clashes between the main players, namely Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the USA, given the strategic importance and geopolitical role of these highways.
Despite the various understandings and arrangements reached by the parties to the conflict, they may yet clash again, as they are each aware that backing down from the conflict over Syria’s international highways will mean losing all influence over the arrangements for Syria’s future. Furthermore, no possible agreement could stop Russia from continuing to seek control over the international highways as a means of protecting its geopolitical interests in Syria.
The issue of control over the international highways is inseparable from Syria’s fundamental problem, namely that if no political solution can be reached, no one is likely to benefit from the opportunities available. Without a political solution, the Syrian regime will not benefit from reopening the route to Aleppo, given the difficulty of restoring Aleppo’s productivity without political change in Damascus, and Russian and China will not enjoy the desired benefits if harsh international sanctions continue to be imposed on Syria.
Dr. Ebtesam al-Ketbi | 24 Sep 2020
Ahmed Zaghloul Shalata | 21 Sep 2020
Shereen Mohammed | 21 Sep 2020