Armenak Tokmajyan is a nonresident scholar at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. His research focuses on borders and conflict, Syrian refugees, and state-society relations in Syria. With Kheder Khaddour, he published a paper last year, titled “How the Small Town of Sarmada Became Syria’s Gateway to the World.” That paper, while published individually, was to be part of a joint publication, “Border Towns, Markets and Conflict,” to which Carnegie contributed with the Asia Foundation and the Rift Valley Institute. The publication, which has just come out, is a product of the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office’s Cross-Border Conflict: Evidence, Policy and Trends (XCEPT) program, funded by U.K. aid from the United Kingdom government. Diwan spoke to Tokmajyan in mid-July to discuss his paper, but also to provide an update on the situation in Syria’s northern border region.
Michael Young: How has the conflict in Syria reshaped the centers of trade and commerce in the northern parts of the country?
Armenak Tokmajyan: Let’s pick one town, which my colleague Kheder Khaddour and I worked on, namely Sarmada. Sarmada’s transformation into an economic hub started with the militarization of the Syrian uprising in 2012, and was accelerated by Syria’s descent shortly thereafter into full-blown war. Before the uprising, the city of Aleppo was the administrative, industrial, and trade hub of Syria’s north. All major local and international trade routes in the region led to Aleppo, from where goods were distributed to northern Syria’s smaller cities and towns.
In 2012, the regime’s gradual withdrawal of its forces from rural areas in Idlib and Aleppo, where rebel activity was on the rise, detached Aleppo from its hinterland, including access to the Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam crossings with Turkey. Meanwhile, rebel groups and regime forces carved up Aleppo city among themselves. The toll was devastating in terms of the loss of human life, the flight of capital and skilled labor, and the destruction of infrastructure. The nerve center of Syria’s commercial order in the north began to shift from Aleppo to the rebel-held northwestern border area. Sarmada, which is located right next to the strategic Bab al-Hawa crossing, is perhaps the most notable example of this phenomenon, though over time other border towns in the north followed suit.
MY: Can you describe what happened specifically in Sarmada?
AT: Turmoil and war changed the economic order in northern Syria. Production and agriculture retreated, while trade, especially imports and humanitarian aid delivery, became the order of the day. Sarmada was well placed to be the hub for such activities. It was located right next to the Bab al-Hawa crossing with Turkey, as I said, it was relatively safe from regime fire, it was also a safe place to store foreign humanitarian assistance before being redistributed inside Syria, and it became a magnet for human and financial capital fleeing former centers of economic activity. In short, Sarmada was transformed from a small rural town to an economic hub amid a major shift in economic activity from metropolitan centers to border areas.
MY: More broadly, how do you see developments in northern Syria in the coming months, especially in light of recent Turkish threats to mount another major military operation against Kurdish forces there?
AT: We could either see an escalation or calm; both are possible. To put it in context, after the Ukraine war began Turkey’s importance for both Russia and the West rose. Ankara felt emboldened to push for some of its demands, which included arms deals with the United States, a lifting of arms embargos on Turkey by several countries, and the lifting of sanctions, among others. Turkey’s new threats to intervene in Syria against Washington’s Kurdish allies come in this context. For now, the United States is against any Turkish incursion, and it has made that very clear. But for Turkey to intervene in Syria it also needs to reach a prior understanding with Russia, which, along with the regime, has forces in many of the Kurdish areas that Turkey wants to control. There may have been some under-the-table bargaining, but until now no deal is apparent. At the moment, Turkey’s plans seem to be on hold. But even if Turkey backs down, it won’t fully abandon its plans. It would rather just postpone them, as the status quo is not acceptable for Ankara.
MY: Do you feel that border areas controlled by Turkey in northern Syria will ever return to Syrian control? Or are we seeking creeping annexation of these areas?
AT: It is hard to tell but what can be said with more certainty is that neither Turkey nor the regime, backed by its allies Russia and Iran, is content with the current control map. And if you take into consideration Turkey’s seriousness, and that of the Syrian regime as well, to change the status quo, the current frontlines may well change given the degree of militarization in the region. Kheder Khaddour and I made this point in another joint paper, titled “The Border Nation: The Reshaping of the Syrian-Turkish Border.” That was before the Ukraine war and Turkey’s threats to conduct yet another incursion into Syria. We assume that Turkey’s threats, Syrian regime and Russian mobilization, and under-the-table talks between Turkey and various actors, chiefly Russia, are all a sign that the frontlines in northern Syria are not settled for good.
Regarding the annexation question, many opposition-controlled areas along the border with Turkey are under Turkey’s de facto control or sway. These areas serve as a buffer between Turkey and areas controlled by the Syrian regime, as well as being a guarantee that at least some of Ankara’s demands will be heard by the regime and its allies when the time comes to settle the conflict in the north. The regime, with Russia’s help, might regain control of some parts of the north—for example areas south of the M4 highway. However, complete control is unlikely for the time being. But we doubt that Turkey has much to gain from officially annexing these areas.