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Alex Rowell

Borderline warfare

As much as the Syrian conflict is a battle for territory within the country, it is also a battle for the borders

As much as the Syrian conflict is a battle for territory within the country, it is also a battle for the borders, access to which can offer invaluable military, strategic, and financial advantages.

The past month alone has seen bids made for several of Syria's twenty-one official border crossings. On October 17, a Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated rebel coalition led by the Army of Yarmouk brigade launched an offensive aimed at taking over the regime-held Naseeb crossing in the south, currently the only open passageway between Syria and Jordan. The ongoing assault by Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) jihadists on the Kurdish Syrian border town of Kobane is, in part, aimed at conquering the adjacent crossing with Turkey. And while Bab al-Hawa further west, in Idlib province, remains for now in the hands of non-jihadist rebels, rapid gains in the surrounding area over the weekend by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra make the fall of the crossing to jihadists in the coming weeks a strong possibility.

"Generally, border crossings have proven extremely valuable to non-state groups, whether as a source of income, manpower, supplies and logistics, or simply reducing the enemy's contact with the outside world," said Charles Lister, Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.

"In Syria, each border represents different benefits to the party who controls it. For ISIS, controlling crossings with Turkey secures it channels of supplies and new recruits, but also allows it to say it's sitting on the border with Europe and gives it openings to stir up Turkey-Kurdish tensions," Lister told NOW.

On the Iraqi frontier, parts of which ISIS has physically destroyed in pursuit of its self-declared multi-national "caliphate" (Islamic state), crossings such as Al-Waleed have been used by the group to extort fees, akin to import taxes, on goods brought across the border.

"Clearly, controlling crossings with Iraq is of existential importance for ISIS' overall Islamic State project and in that respect, the Al-Ya`roubiya crossing will likely prove a serious strategic objective in the months to come," said Lister.

Elsewhere, the weekend's fighting has underscored the role the northwestern border zone has played in inter-rebel conflict.

"Despite some level of rivalry, the Islamic Front and the FSA have developed a willingness to share influence, but the evolving interests of Jabhat al-Nusra is shaking up this balance significantly. More than ever, those groups openly siding with US and Western policy interests are proving divisive actors within the overall opposition dynamic – most recently demonstrated by Nusra-[FSA] clashes in Idlib, which have drawn in Ahrar al-Sham and other Islamist units," said Lister.

Thus "the intense need for sustainable supply and logistics makes the issue of crossing control a factor with potentially debilitating consequences for the revolution itself."
Sources: Anadolu Agency, Associated Press, As-Safir Clearly, controlling crossings with Iraq is of existential importance for ISIS' overall Islamic State project."
Syria Map