Bab al-Hawa border crossing is the main commercial point of entry for northern Syria, and any unpredictable closure has ramifications for the region. The eventual creation of a civilian administration at Bab al-Hawa was an important step in mitigating the impact of competing armed groups in the region, and facilitating trans-border traffic and humanitarian access. It was primarily driven by the needs of Syrian civilians affected by the war, as well as to secure Turkish interests.
A representative of AS claimed in a personal interview that the group initiated a process to establish a functioning border administration, though acknowledged that it had lacked the strategic vision, material means or experience to fully oversee an international border crossing. It made attempts in mid-2013 to recruit regime defectors with relevant technical capacity in immigration, passport control and customs services.
Early efforts to regularise the border administration ultimately failed. The presence of multiple armed opposition groups with competing interests and diverging political goals undermined consensus and blocked progress. Many armed groups benefited from the prevailing disorder, exploiting it to extract illicit taxes. Others feared that increased revenues from better border regulation could in fact increase competition and violence among them and so harm the unity of the Syrian opposition as a whole, and some were concerned it would set a precedent for armed actors in other liberated areas to legitimise the imposition of local taxes from the population. Other groups simply saw more military and economic advantage in focusing their efforts on liberating areas still under regime control.
The evolution of the armed opposition to the Syrian regime ultimately changed the situation in the borderlands. In November 2013, prominent Islamist factions positioned at the border – AS, Suqur al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam and Liwa al- Haq – joined with others to form the Islamic Front. Their unity was decisive in facilitating broader cooperation with other new alliances, notably the Hazm Movement and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (alliances that formed around the same time, partially grew out of the Faruq Brigades, and consisted of groups fighting loosely under the banner of the Free Syrian Army) and in June 2014 an agreement was signed to form a civil administration.
An executive board was established to manage the civil administration headed by Nashat al-Bardisi (Abu Haitham), a consensual figure whom all the groups could accept, alongside representatives from other significant armed groups. Its responsibilities covered most pre-2011 portfolios, including legal affairs, health, human resources, public relations, financial governance and technical affairs. Defectors from the Syrian regime who had formerly worked in customs, immigration, passport control, police and border management were recruited to set up the new administration. The Turkish government – recognising the need to reduce security tensions while maintaining economic gains – was also a key driver in the process, pressuring armed opposition groups to establish a civilian administration with technical expertise to organise the flow of goods and people.
After two months’ preparation, the new administration began its work in August 2014 in coordination with local councils and the chamber of commerce. Its main objectives were to facilitate communication with local officials, ease trade, provide humanitarian relief, regulate cross-border transit and preserve security. Infrastructure damaged during the liberation of Bab al-Hawa was restored, stolen computers and data were retrieved, and new software established to read security codes and scan passports. New laws and regulations were introduced for immigration, transit authorisation and customs, police and technical support, with reforms overseen by regime defectors and technocrats. The administration launched a website to deliver services to Syrian citizens, including demands for medical treatment in Turkey or transit travel requests through Turkey. Staff needed to have both the right professional qualifications and the approval of armed groups.
Institutionalisation of Bab al-Hawa had an immediate effect on security: the unification of large armed groups in north-west Syria meant smaller factions could be expelled. Armed groups not directly associated with the administration were ordered to remove their military bases. Refugee camps were similarly transferred outside the border-crossing area and disarmed. This stabilised security and directly benefited local communities, who no longer had to pay bribes or negotiate with multiple armed groups. Revenue was allocated for refurbishing looted infrastructure and for the salaries of local and factional employees. Some of the budget was also spent on the law court in the nearby town of Binnish and on providing basic services in neighbouring regions. The remainder was divided between the armed groups that remained in charge of the border.