Ground transport resumes between northeastern Syria and Damascus after four-year hiatus

By Kadar Ahmad and Avery Edelman

KOBANE: Residents of northeastern Syria can once again travel by land to major cities in the country’s more-populous west, including Aleppo and Damascus, after a cross-country route was restored to service last month following a four-year closure.

The primary route between Hasakeh province, on the border with Iraq and Turkey, and western Syria had been closed since 2013 as rebel forces and the Islamic State controlled different areas along the road.

However, recent advances by pro-government and Kurdish-led forces against those groups have allowed transportation companies to restart trips running from the city of Qamishli in Hasakeh through Raqqa, Aleppo, Hama and Homs provinces to Damascus, and from there to the Lebanese capital Beirut.

In particular, the Syrian army’s seizure of Islamic State-held territory near the city of Manbij in eastern Aleppo province at the end of February brought the full route under control of either pro-government or pro-Kurdish forces.

The Syrian government now holds portions of the route west of Manbij, while the portions east of the city fall under control of the Self-Administration, a coalition governing body dominated by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the Peoples Protection Units (YPG).

The Self-Administration is the primary governing body in Syria’s de-facto autonomous Kurdish regions, which include most of Hasakeh province and parts of Aleppo and Raqqa provinces.

Some parts of the cross-country route are militarily controlled by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are dominated by the YPG.

Buses using the route will depart from Qamishli, a major city in Syria’s eastern Hasakeh province.

The first bus to take the restored route departed Qamishli on April 22, according to an organizer of the trips who spoke with the Syrian Voice.

He said that a Qamishli-based transportation company agreed to conduct two trips per week, on Saturdays and Thursdays, and that a one-way ticket from Qamishli to Damascus costs 17,000 Syrian pounds [$31.00].

The longer trip from Qamishli to Beirut costs 35,000 pounds [$64.00].

The reestablishment of the route running between both Kurdish- and government-held territory raised questions about whether an agreement had taken place between the two powers in order to facilitate the route’s use.

Jomaa Malouh, a member of the government-affiliated Hasakeh Council, told government outlet SANA that the trips restarted “following efforts and direct coordination between the province and transportation companies.”

Although the Self-Administration controls the vast majority of Hasaskeh province, the Syrian government maintains an administrative presence in the provincial capital and continues to provide a number of municipal services to the area.

It was not clear from Malouh’s statement which parties represented the province in the coordination he mentioned.

A bus departs Kobane, a stop along the route from Hasakeh to Damascus.

However, Abdullah Kado, a member of the Kurdish Yekti party, told the Syrian Voice that the return of ground transport along this route “is a clear indication that an agreement between the Syrian government and the Self-Administration exists.”

The Yekti party is affiliated with the Kurdish National Council (KNC), a group representing the main political opposition to the PYD.

The KNC has often accused the PYD of collaboration with the Syrian government.

Kado added that “the decision to conduct trips will be noted as an achievement by both the regime and the Self-Administration. It will be considered an indication of security.”

The restored route begins in Qamishli and heads east to Aleppo and Damascus. Photo courtesy of Qamishli Today.

Ammar Bakdash, a member of the Syrian parliament, acknowledged in a conversation with Russian outlet Sputnik allegations that the restoration of the route is related to an agreement between Kurds and the Syrian government for the formation of a self-governing, federal Kurdish State.

Bakdash nonetheless denied the existence of such an agreement, saying that those who infer otherwise have “a wide imagination” and that a route linking Syria’s provinces merely reflects a return to the “natural” situation in Syria.

The opening of the route “is of great economic and social importance,” he added, claiming it will “help citizens improve their economic situation and living conditions.”

Elsewhere, Lebanese outlet Al Modon reports a Self-Administration official said that the bus trips came under an agreement between the government and the Self-Administration in order to make transportation for residents easier and to bring medical and food supplies to the region.

The unnamed official clarified that the agreement does not represent a “normalization” of relations with the government, stating, “trade relationships have not been interrupted between various parties in Syria, whether [between] Daesh, the government, the Free Syrian Army, or the Self-Administration.”

“This situation is based on the needs of civilians,” he added.

The return of a land route to central Syria was greeted by residents of the country’s east, who previously had to rely on expensive flights or smuggling to reach other provinces of the country.

Rodee, a student from Qamishli, says he is relieved to have the option of ground transport to Aleppo, where he attends university.

“It’s become very easy to return from my university in Aleppo to Qamishli for holidays,” he said, explaining that he used to exit the country illegally from Aleppo province into Turkey and then re-enter Syria near his hometown.

Mohammad Ali, 60, told the Syrian Voice that the availability of ground transport will allow him to travel to Damascus for medical care.

“I need to have an operation on my heart,” he said. “I could get the operation here in Qamishli, but the doctors in Damascus have more experience.”

Before the opening of the land route, residents of northeastern Syria had to rely on flights out of the region’s only airport in Qamishli. Photo courtesy of 7al Press.

Despite the availability of land travel, Haithem Hassan, from Kobane in northern Aleppo province, says he still prefers to take flights out of the region’s only airport in Qamishli.

Hassan told the Syrian Voice that “a trip by land is cheaper but it could take two full days, due to the many security checkpoints along the way.”

He added that he has concerns about passing through government-held checkpoints, where he says he could be drafted for military service or forced to pay bribes in order to pass, as was the case when he last travelled from Lebanon to eastern Syria in 2012.

Original Arabic article found here.


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