Syrian rebels reopen main border crossing with Turkey

AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian opposition groups have reopened the northwestern border crossing of Bab al-Hawa with Turkey after a week-long closure caused by rebel infighting that blocked the main conduit for goods into Idlib province.

A Free Syrian Army flag flies at Bab al-Hawa crossing point in Syria July 8, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

Border officials and rebels said more than 200 trucks carrying food and humanitarian supplies, delivered by Western and regional charities, alongside commercial cargo had crossed from the Turkish side since the gateway reopened on Wednesday.

Among them were at least 30 trucks carrying aid from NGOs. The rest was cargo and foodstuffs imported from Turkey by private traders, said officials from rebel groups which operate under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) banner.

“From today commercial and cargo traffic has returned to normal, also passenger traffic after the Turkish authorities opened their side,” Qassem al Qassem, a border crossing official, told Reuters.

The crossing handles tens of millions of dollars worth of trade and humanitarian relief annually and the prospect of its fall into the hands of jihadist insurgents had raised fears among the international and regional aid community that it would hamper aid flows.

The crossing closed after Hayat Tahrir al Sham, a rebel alliance spearheaded by the former al Qaeda offshoot Nusra Front, encircled the crossing after three days of bloody fighting with its rivals Ahrar al-Sham, driving them out of the border area and most of the province.

“Several containers of food parcels that had been held up have now moved to several towns in the province without any problem,” said Abdul Rahman Ghazi, a field coordinator of the Turkey-based Nahnu al Umma charity that operates across the province.

Bab al-Hawa was a major international crossing before the crisis and handled billions of dollars of overland trade from Europe to the Gulf through Syria.

A ceasefire deal that ended three days of rebel infighting forced Turkey-backed Ahrar al-Sham - which had been in control of the crossing for the last three years - to give up its military presence there and hand over to a new administration.

Officials said the same civilian staff were still running the crossing but without an armed military presence by any rebel faction, after Ahrar al-Sham withdrew on Sunday a large garrison it had positioned there.

More than two million people live in Idlib, which has become a refuge for many displaced Syrians from across the country, including rebel fighters and their families who left areas seized by the Syrian army.

Many people have come to rely on food handouts by international charities in the absence of jobs and widespread damage in the province, once Syria’s main fertile olive-growing province.

Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Gareth Jones