The conflict in Syria has fundamentally transformed the socioeconomic order in the country’s north, which borders Turkey. It has led to the decline of Aleppo as Syria’s economic center and the rise of border towns within a new economic order that is inextricably tied to the border itself. Sarmada, located in Idlib Governorate, embodies this transformation. From a small town near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, one long in the shadow of Aleppo, it has emerged as a commercial hub linking Syria’s economy to Turkish and global markets.

Sarmada’s transformation was set in motion by the militarization of the Syrian uprising in 2012 and accelerated by Syria’s descent, shortly thereafter, into full-blown civil war. In 2012, the regime’s gradual withdrawal of its forces from rural areas in Idlib, where rebel activity was on the rise, cut Aleppo off from its economic hinterland. Meanwhile, rebel groups and regime forces carved up the city itself between them. The toll was devastating in terms of loss of human life, flight of both capital and skilled labor, and 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, especially Sarmada and the nearby Bab al-Hawa crossing.

By 2013­­–2014, Aleppo city was effectively marginalized. Over the next several years, the profile of Sarmada’s business community changed, as did the armed groups that controlled the town and the Bab al-Hawa crossing. Today, Sarmada and Bab al-Hawa both fall within the area under the rule of Islamist radical group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). But throughout all the changes, the basis of the economy that arose in the wake of the regime’s withdrawal from the border area remained firmly in place: the importing of goods into Syria. Until 2017, Bab al-Hawa was one of the few border crossings in operation. This gave Sarmada great importance. It became an economic nexus between Turkey, rebel-held Syria, and regime-controlled Syria. Although several other crossings have since popped up along the Syrian border, and several nearby villages have grown into towns on the back of this phenomenon, Sarmada remains an important commercial gateway to the world.

How Syria’s Conflict Spurred Sarmada’s Expansion

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, where goods were distributed to northern Syria’s smaller cities and towns. The country’s descent into civil war disrupted this commercial order. While Aleppo was cut off on almost all sides and lost direct access to the Turkish border, the latter remained open to rebel-held parts of Syria for commerce. As a result, many businessmen and merchants began to relocate to previously marginal border towns in northern Syria, to Turkey, and even farther afield. For those who moved to Turkey, Sarmada emerged as the main gateway for business with Syrian markets. Similarly, cities and traders formerly within Aleppo’s orbit now looked for a new and secure portal through which to import goods from abroad—and found it in Sarmada. In effect, the emerging economic order had redrawn the main commercial routes: instead of Aleppo it was Sarmada, a formerly small border town, that now served as the bridge between global and local markets.

Reflecting this transformation is the fact that the volume of Turkey’s exports to Syria, which had plummeted following the militarization of the uprising, bounced back as quickly as 2014. The year before the uprising, Turkey had become Syria’s main source of imports. About 9.5 percent of all imports to Syria came from its northern neighbor in 2010,1 with their value reaching an unprecedented $1.84 billion.2 In December 2011, after Turkey imposed sanctions on Syria to pressure Bashar al-Assad to step down from the presidency, Damascus suspended its trade agreements with Ankara and imposed steep customs duties on Turkish goods.3 As a result, trade plummeted threefold in 2012. However, Bab al-Hawa and to a lesser extent Bab al-Salam, two northwestern border crossings with Turkey that fell outside the control of Damascus and were not subject to state regulations, began to witness an increase in traffic, so much so that the value of imports from Turkey increased to $1.8 billion in 2014, almost reaching the pre-2011 level.4

In parallel to this development, the business environment was changing. After the Syrian army’s withdrawal from the north in mid­­-2012, merchants who had connections to the regime suddenly lost their monopoly on big business. The regime’s withdrawal had left Bab al-Hawa and other areas under the control of a hodgepodge of mostly local armed groups.5 Predictably, locals familiar with how to circumvent risk gained an edge. As one trader with first-hand experience of the scene in 2012­­–2013 explained, “local roots” or a “partner with local roots” became crucial for Syrian merchants from elsewhere to take advantage of the brisk but sometimes dangerous business now conducted in Sarmada.6

Toward the end of 2013, several rebel groups contended with each other for control of Bab al-Hawa. They either established their own business networks or preyed on existing ones through shakedowns.7 Eventually, Ahrar al-Sham, a coalition of radical Islamist groups in northern Syria, gained the upper hand. After managing to take sole control of the crossing in early 2015, Ahrar al-Sham set up a civilian administration to manage it. By that point, the composition of the traders active in Sarmada had gone from largely local to much more diverse, with merchants from all over Syria having established a base in what was clearly a burgeoning hub.

Accompanying the economic shift was a demographic transformation that extended to much of the northern border region. Advantageous market conditions coupled with the fact that Sarmada was relatively safe from regime and Russian airstrikes due to its proximity to the Turkish border played a major role in this development. Internally displaced Syrians poured into the area. Almost overnight, Sarmada, which had about 15,000 inhabitants before 2011, became a medium-sized city of around 130,000 people. The population of Harim district—which includes Sarmada, Bab al-Hawa, and other border towns—increased from an estimated 450,000 in 2011 to 1.1 million in 2019.8

As a consequence of this, demand for property soared and construction boomed. As explained by a local construction engineer, “Those who invested in Sarmada were traders from Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, and Maarra who were already in that business. They came to Sarmada and either bought land or agreed with the owners to jointly invest in it.”9 The construction of one-story houses, long the norm, was increasingly outpaced by that of multistory buildings in the town itself as well as ramshackle camps for the internally displaced farther out along the border. Entire luxury-style neighborhoods, such as Sarmada Villas (Qusour Sarmada), also sprang up. Indeed, while much property was priced at the equivalent of $20 or so per square meter, choice real estate fetched up to $100 per square meter.10 Almost overnight, a small rural town underwent an extensive physical and economic transformation.11

The rapid development of Sarmada and its environs was mirrored in several locations across the border. As a result of the ongoing conflict, two major Syrian population groupings have emerged—one in northern Syria consisting of about 2.6 million Syrians, many of whom are internally displaced,12 and another in southern Turkey, where some 1.6 million Syrians have settled.13 Connecting these “two Syrias” separated by an international border is the primary bridge of Bab al-Hawa and the secondary one of Sarmada. While the former is a crucial gateway to outside markets, the latter plays the same role when it comes to Syrian markets. Rather than serve the classic function of delimiting the dividing line between neighboring countries, the Syrian-Turkish border in the vicinity of Sarmada/Bab al-Hawa functions as a sort of free trade zone—one that exists in the interstice between Syria and Turkey.

An Economic Hub and a Humanitarian Aid Corridor

Historically, Sarmada’s importance derived not just from its location near Bab al-Hawa, but from its inhabitants’ familiarity with how things worked at the border. Traders in big cities across Syria enjoyed privileges that were denied the locals of Sarmada, yet they lacked the means to facilitate the transportation of goods often worth millions of dollars from Bab al-Hawa to their cities. That was the specialty of twenty or so customs clearance companies run by local families. They had hands-on knowledge of clearance, connections with local state authorities such as customs and security bodies, and links to counterparts who worked on the Turkish side of the border.

Nevertheless, customs clearance was too lucrative a business to be left entirely to the locals. In mid-1990s, then president Hafez al-Assad’s brother Jamil, who was already in the customs clearance business as it pertained to Syria’s seaports in Latakia and Tartous, decided to tap into the Bab al-Hawa market. Rather than freeze out the existing economic structures, Jamil’s approach aimed at co-opting them. He initiated an increase in paperwork processing fees and created a joint treasury that collected the additional revenue and distributed it among the twenty or so customs clearance companies. In this manner, Jamil forged alliances with the local economic players.14 He even relied on the head of a local company to oversee the distribution of additional revenue collected by the common treasury, though it was widely rumored that Jamil’s own company took the lion’s share of the money.15

The changing conditions in northern Syria had a profound impact on these customs clearance companies. The regime’s withdrawal ended the customs system in Bab al-Hawa and with that the need for the companies. This development, however, did not mean the end of local economic networks’ relevance. Instead, these networks reinvented themselves. That certain companies proved able to segue from customs clearance to trade illustrates as much. They maintained the contacts that they had forged with Syrian and foreign traders, but reoriented them toward a new joint endeavor: importing goods and selling them on the local market.16 In so doing, these former customs clearance companies were taking the first steps toward turning Sarmada into a focal point for regional commerce and transforming themselves into a loose-knit yet like-minded group known as the Sarmada Traders (Tujjar Sarmada).

The growth of the business community in Sarmada went hand-in-hand with that of its counterpart across a wide swath of southeastern Turkey, to which many Syrians had relocated. Companies with Syrian capital proliferated, most notably in the provinces of Gaziantep, Mersin, and Kilis. In 2015, 35 percent of all new firms in Kilis had Syrian shareholders, while the figure stood at 15 percent for Mersin and 13 percent for Gaziantep.17 Syria was an important market for these new companies. For instance, exports from Gaziantep to Syria increased from about $100 million in 2011 to $400 million in 2015, whereas those of Hatay, another southeastern province of Turkey, increased from $100 million to $226 million during the same period.18

Sarmada became the main destination of goods coming from abroad and turned into a supply point for Syrian markets in both rebel-held and regime-controlled parts of the country. The immediate market was and remains Idlib, with its swelling population. Northern Syria, especially the portion under the control of Turkish-backed Syrian fighters—namely the Afrin and “Euphrates Shield” areas, the latter of which is located north of Aleppo—also includes important markets. At one point, the Islamic State’s short-lived caliphate, which in 2015 extended from Aleppo’s eastern rural areas all the way to Iraq’s Mosul and Falluja, made for another large market. The relatively higher prices in the Islamic State’s territory and the fact that it had few channels to the outside world only enhanced Sarmada’s importance.19

Traders residing in regime-held areas also benefited. The Sarmada/Bab al-Hawa axis provided a means to import goods that, compared to regime-held air and maritime portals, was not only cheaper—owing to lower taxes assessed and cheaper bribes demanded—but involved less red tape and fewer delays. In practice, this meant that the otherwise convoluted method of transporting goods from China to Turkey’s port of Mersin, taking them to Sarmada via Bab al-Hawa, and finally sending them to a city such as Hama, was a better option than transporting them from China to the port of Tartous.20

Moreover, despite the Syrian regime’s ban on Turkish goods, they remained available on the market in both Aleppo and Damascus. The flow of goods across enemy lines was possible due to internal crossings that connected the divided country and demonstrated that business interests often trumped political rivalries. Abu Dali, located northeast of Hama, was one of the best-known and most widely used of the internal crossings. On the Idlib side, the crossing was under the control of HTS. On the regime’s side, it was operated by a local member of parliament.21 Many other such internal crossings have come and gone in Syria, usually as a result of political vicissitudes. Between spring 2018 and 2019, for example, several crossings connected Idlib with regime-held areas. According to a former official in Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (the predecessor of HTS), the organization’s revenue from these internal crossings was $2.3 million per month.22

This state of affairs was disrupted by the regime’s military operation in early 2020. The regime, with Russia’s help, recaptured the strategic Damascus-Aleppo highway, known as M-5. Direct commercial traffic between regime- and HTS-controlled areas immediately ceased. Subsequent attempts by HTS to open internal crossings for the purpose of trading with regime-controlled areas met with a backlash on the part of locals, many of whom had ended up in Idlib because they were displaced by regime forces’ operations elsewhere.23 Such attempts also provoked stern warnings from Turkey, which maintains a significant military presence in Idlib.24 Meanwhile, internal crossings between Idlib and Afrin, which is under the control of Turkish-backed forces, assumed greater importance now that they had become Sarmada’s only gateway to other parts of Syria.

Yet it is instructive that, even when faced with such a near-desperate situation, HTS resisted the temptation to exert greater control over Bab al-Hawa. Since driving out Ahrar al-Sham in August 2017, HTS had strengthened its grip over Idlib as a whole, adopting a more hands-on approach to ruling the governorate and at one point reportedly going so far as to claim that it ran a “state.”25 For all its bluster, however, HTS realized that it was blacklisted throughout the world as a terrorist organization. Were the group to seize outright control of Bab al-Hawa, it is reasonable to assume that merchants with international connections would steer clear of the crossing and thereby cause trade to plummet. Rather than risk such a catastrophic outcome, HTS chose a more indirect means of extracting greater revenue from the Sarmada/Bab al-Hawa axis.

Specifically, HTS sought to nurture a particular contingent of Sarmada merchants, the so-called Hay’a Traders (Tujjar al-Hay’a), whose loyalty to the group ran deep. By granting exclusive rights to the Hay’a Traders over staple foods and other key goods, HTS established a near-monopoly on the sale of sugar, chicken, and bananas, among other widely purchased items, while remaining at an arm’s remove from actual transactions. According to one informed trader, a merchant unaffiliated with the Hay’a Traders “can buy sugar and take it to Bab al-Hawa. But he will not be allowed to bring it into [Idlib].”26 Selling to the Hay’a Traders is the only way the merchant can make his product available within Syria. HTS, it would appear, has wisely refrained from using a heavy hand and instead executed a strategy of creeping control over the Sarmada/Bab al-Hawa axis, without whose sustenance Idlib’s socioeconomic order, and the HTS statelet with it, would collapse.

Meanwhile, another new dimension of the social, political, and economic order in Idlib took shape: humanitarian aid. Again, border dynamics are key to understanding the significance of this. Bab al-Hawa emerged as the most important crossing for the delivery of humanitarian aid, with Sarmada playing a complementary role thanks to its provision of warehouses for the storage of newly arrived supplies.27 As Syrians in the northwest grew more reliant on humanitarian aid, the latter became part of the local economic order.

A cursory look at the relevant statistics substantiates this assertion. In 2014, United Nations Security Council Resolution 2165 authorized cross-border delivery of aid by UN relief agencies.28 The authorization covered both Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam in northwestern Syria, meaning that aid could enter rebel-held areas of Syria without the consent of Damascus. Between 2014 and November 2020, a total of 37,700 trucks of humanitarian aid crossed into northwestern Syria, around 85 percent of which passed through Bab al-Hawa.29 In 2020, some 12,000 trucks, most of them carrying goods provided by the World Food Program, entered the region, 87 percent of them through Bab al-Hawa. About 193,000 metric tons of humanitarian aid were delivered to Harim district, as opposed to roughly 70,000 tons to all other locations in the northwest combined.30 In short, Idlib is heavily dependent on the delivery of aid, the disruption of which would almost surely create a humanitarian crisis.

Here, too, HTS has found it prudent to tread lightly. For example, the group initially tried to levy a tax on all aid passing through Bab al-Hawa. However, when Western donors consequently threatened to suspend aid shipments, HTS backtracked.31 No less significant is the fact that Turkey has less control over aid destined for Idlib in comparison to other areas in the northwest, which are more firmly under Ankara’s sway. An incident that took place in April–May 2020 illustrates as much. According to a local activist, Turkish authorities refused to allow the distribution in Afrin of food baskets that originated in Saudi Arabia and did not bear the Turkish flag. As a result, the Saudis simply rerouted the shipment to Idlib, where the baskets were distributed without interference from the Turkish authorities.32

For all its advantages, there is no question that the current system of delivering humanitarian aid has its liabilities. Weak Turkish influence and an overdependency on Bab al-Hawa make the entire aid enterprise vulnerable to disruption by the regime. And the regime has powerful friends. In July 2020, Russia briefly held up renewal of Resolution 2165 on the delivery of aid via Turkey.33 Moscow has for some time wanted to make all humanitarian aid to Syria pass through channels under the control of Damascus.34 Were that to happen, Damascus would gain the ability to control that portion of the aid meant for Idlib. Such a scenario would prove disastrous for the area’s inhabitants, as the regime would have attained the ability to destroy an essential pillar of Idlib’s socioeconomic order.


The interstitial area encompassing Sarmada and Bab al-Hawa makes for a peculiar phenomenon. It is not a classic border zone separating two sovereign states, though it actually fulfills this function. Nor is it a free zone created by such entities to facilitate trade, though it does that too. One way to perceive the Sarmada/Bab al-Hawa phenomenon is to imagine it as a multiportal gateway, one that arose organically—it is more the result of circumstance than design—between the distinct sociopolitico-economic systems of Turkey and Syria.

In the economic sense, for instance, Sarmada/Bab al-Hawa serves to connect the clear-cut and internationally recognized financial/banking order that exists in Turkey, and by extension the rest of the world, with the relatively murky one of Idlib, which is managed by nonstate actors and lacks a clear regulatory framework. Sarmada/Bab al-Hawa’s economic importance is complemented by its role as a gateway of another sort, one that allows for the frequent back-and-forth movement over the border of people uninvolved in trade. Indeed, the Sarmada/Bab al-Hawa phenomenon is sustained by what gave rise to it in the first place: millions of Syrians who recently relocated to areas in the immediate vicinity and on either side of the border. Though now inhabiting two distinct systems, the fact that both population groups share a general northwestern Syrian sociogeographic origin enables them to transcend all manner of boundaries—including an international border.

The peculiarity of this multiportal gateway also lies in the fact that no single actor wields firm control over it. Turkey, the only international player with a strong presence on the ground in Idlib, enjoys influence but not control. HTS, which rules most of Idlib in the immediate, physical sense, has encroached on the Sarmada/Bab al-Hawa space and reaped certain benefits as a result. Nevertheless, the group has pointedly refrained from exerting full control, as such a move would backfire.

As vital a lifeline as the Sarmada/Bab al-Hawa gateway may be, especially for the people of Idlib, it remains vulnerable. This is because, for all the sustenance provided by millions of Syrians on either side of the border, its existence remains overly reliant on larger political constructs over which local actors have scant influence. Indeed, a military escalation by Russia and the Syrian regime, or a political agreement stipulating that the region should revert to regime control—as happened to rebel-held areas in southern Syria in the summer of 2018—would strangulate Sarmada/Bab al-Hawa. Even a reorganization of cross-border humanitarian aid delivery could lead to such an outcome, particularly if the regime gains the ability to manipulate the process. In effect, the Sarmada/Bab al-Hawa gateway, which emerged overnight as an economic hub undergirding a crucial part of northwestern Syria’s war economy, could fall apart just as quickly and trigger the collapse of Idlib’s wartime order.

This article was originally published by the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center.

The authors would like to thank Manhal Bareesh for many helpful discussions on this article’s topic.


1 Data taken from “World Integrated Trade Solutions,”

2 Data taken from “World Integrated Trade Solutions,”

3 “Suriya Tuwqef Ittifaqiyyat al-Tijara ma‘ Turkiya” [Syria Suspends Trade Agreement with Turkey], Al Jazeera, December 4, 2011,

4 Data taken from “World Integrated Trade Solutions,”

5 France 24, “Ma‘bar Bab al-Hawa Bayn Turkiya wa Suriya Yasqot fi Aydi Islamiyyin Ghayr Suriyyin” [The Bab al-Hawa Crossing Between Turkey and Syria Falls into the Hands of non-Syrian Islamists], August 22, 2012,إسلاميون-غير-سوريين-السيطرة-معبر-باب-الهوى-تركيا-سوريا-القاعدة-طالبان-المعارضة-الأسد-سوريا-مواجهات .

6 Authors’ interview with a trader from Hama currently residing in Turkey (via Zoom), November 22, 2020.

7 “Idarat ‘Bab al-Hawa’: Lam Narfa‘ Rusoum al-‘Ubur Itlaqan, wa Daribat al-Bada’e‘ Ma‘mul Biha Munzu ‘Ahed al-Khalifa ‘Omar” [‘Bab al-Hawa’ Administration: We Did not Raise the Crossing Fees at All, and the Tax System Has Been Used Since the Time of Caliph Omar], Zaman al-Wasel, October 16, 2014,

8 In the 2004 General Census, Harim had 382,000 residents. With a 2.5 percent average population growth rate in Syria, the number would have reached approximately 450,000 in 2011. The 2019 number is based on UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs population estimates.

9 Authors’ interview with an engineer and former local council official from Sarmada (via Zoom), Sarmada, August 7, 2020.

10 Ibid.

11 See, for example, Mustafa Abu Shams, “Istimrar al-Nuzuh Yuwasse‘ Harakat al-Bina’ fi Idlib” [Continuous Displacement Expands Construction in Idlib], Al-Jumhuriya, July 15, 2015,

12 Fabrice Balanche, “Idlib May Become the Next Gaza Strip,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 26, 2020,

13 Soner Cagaptay and Maya Yalkin, “Syrian Refugees in Turkey,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, August 22, 2018,

14 Authors’ interview with an owner of a customs clearance company who turned to trade after the uprising (via Zoom), Sarmada, November 3, 2020; authors’ interview with a trader and former owner of a customs clearance company in Sarmada (via Zoom), Sarmada, December 15, 2020.

15 Authors’ interview with the former owner of a customs clearance company (via Zoom), Sarmada, November 4, 2020; authors’ interview with the owner of a customs clearance company who turned to trade after the uprising (via Zoom), Sarmada, November 3, 2020; authors’ interview with a trader and former owner of a customs clearance company (via Zoom), Sarmada, December 15, 2020.

16 Authors’ interview with the owner of a customs clearance company (via Zoom), Sarmada, November 4, 2020.

17 Timur Kaymaz and Omar Kadkoy, “Syrians in Turkey—The Economics of Integration,” Al Sharq Forum, September 2016,, 5.

18 Ibid.

19 Authors’ interview with an Aleppine trader who moved to Sarmada (via Zoom), Sarmada, November 23, 2017; authors’ interview with the owner of a customs clearance company who turned to trade after the uprising (via Zoom), Sarmada, November 3, 2020.

20 Authors’ interview with a trader from Hama (via Zoom) currently living in Turkey, November 22, 2020.

21 “Abu Dali ‘Mantiqa Hurra’ Bayn al-Mu‘arada wa al-Nizam.. wa Na’eb Suri Yasir al-‘Amaliyyat” [Abu Dali a ‘Free Zone’ Between the Opposition and the Regime…And a Syrian MP Manages the Process], Enab Baladi, May 29, 2016,

22 “Masaleh Iqtisadiyya min Fateh Ma‘bar Dakhili fi Idlib.. Man al-Mustafid?” [Economic Interests in the Opening of an Internal Crossing in Idlib…Who is the Beneficiary?], Enab Baladi, November 29, 2020,

23 Authors’ interview with an Idlib activist, Idlib, February 6, 2020.

24 Authors’ interview with a researcher from Idlib (via Zoom) based in Turkey, December 13, 2020; authors’ interview with an Idlib activist, Idlib, February 6, 2020; authors’ interview with a researcher working for a Western governmental research institute, August 21, 2020.

25 “Tahrir al-Sham: Fi Idlib “Dawla,” Bi-I‘tiraf aw min Dunih” [HTS: In Idlib there is a ‘State,’ with or without Recognition], Enab Baladi, August 31, 2020,; Mohamed Belaas, Facebook post, August 30, 2020, 11:19 p.m.,

26 Authors’ interview with a trader and former owner of a customs clearance company in Sarmada (via Zoom), Sarmada, December 15, 2020.

27 Authors’ interview with a senior humanitarian worker (via Zoom), Turkey, November 6, 2020.

28 UN Security Council Resolution No. 2165 (2014),

29 UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Syrian Arab Republic: United Nations Cross Border Operations under UNSC Resolutions,” November 30, 2020,

30 Logistics Cluster, “Cross-Border Operations: Turkey to Northern Syria / January–December 2020,” January 6, 2021,

31 International Crisis Group, “Silencing the Guns in Syria’s Idlib,” May 14, 2020,, 21.

32 Authors’ interview with an activist from Idlib (via Zoom), Idlib, October 6, 2020.

33 Michelle Nichols, “Russia Fails Again at U.N. Ahead of Last-Ditch Vote on Syria Cross-Border Aid,” Reuters, July 9, 2020

34 Alexey Khlebnikov, “The Future of Humanitarian Aid Delivery to Syria: What is Russia’s Rationale?” Russian International Affairs Council, July 31, 2020,