Why this road is Al As­sad’s high­way to vic­tory in Syria

450km high­way links the coun­try’s four largest cities and pop­u­la­tion cen­tres

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The 450km mo­tor­way, which cuts through Idlib and links Da­m­as­cus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo, was a key eco­nomic artery be­fore the war

It is ar­guably one of the most cov­eted prizes in Syria’s civil war, and af­ter eight years of fight­ing, Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar Al Al As­sad has got it back.

The Da­m­as­cus-Aleppo high­way, or the M5, is known to Syr­i­ans sim­ply as the “In­ter­na­tional Road.” Cut­ting through all of Syria’s ma­jor cities, the mo­tor­way is key to who con­trols the coun­try.

Al As­sad grad­u­ally lost con­trol over the mo­tor­way from 2012, when var­i­ous rebel groups fight­ing to top­ple him be­gan seiz­ing parts of the coun­try.

Protests against his rule had erupted the year be­fore amid a wave of up­ris­ings in the Arab world. This soon turned into a civil war, fol­low­ing a gov­ern­ment crack­down on dis­sent and the in­ter­ven­tion of for­eign pow­ers in the grow­ing con­flict.

His­tor­i­cally a bustling trade route, one Syr­ian an­a­lyst, Taleb Ebrahim, called the M5 “the most ba­sic and strate­gic high­way in the Mid­dle East.”

For the Turkey-backed rebels fight­ing Al As­sad, the mo­tor­way was a cor­ner­stone in hold­ing to­gether their ter­ri­tory and keep­ing gov­ern­ment forces at bay. Its loss marks a mor­tal blow for op­po­si­tion fight­ers whose hold on their last patches of ground in north­west­ern Syria is look­ing more and more pre­car­i­ous.

Here’s a look at the M5, and its place in Syria’s nearly nine-year-long civil war:

WHAT IS IT?

The M5 is a strate­gic high­way that starts in south­ern Syria, near the bor­der with Jor­dan, and runs all the way north to the city of Aleppo near the Turk­ish bor­der.

The 450km high­way links the coun­try’s four largest cities and pop­u­la­tion cen­tres: Da­m­as­cus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo, cut­ting through Idlib prov­ince.

Be­fore the war, the M5 mo­tor­way served as an eco­nomic artery for Syria — mainly feed­ing the coun­try’s in­dus­trial

hub of Aleppo. Ex­perts es­ti­mate the road car­ried business worth $25 mil­lion (Dh92 mil­lion) a day at the height of Syria’s trade boom be­fore the war.

The high­way was a pas­sage­way for the crossing of wheat and cot­ton from the Syr­ian east and north to the rest of the coun­try. It was also a road used for the ex­change of com­modi­ties with regional trade part­ners like Jor­dan, Saudi Ara­bia and other Arab states, as well as Turkey.

RE­COV­ER­ING CON­TROL

Re­gain­ing con­trol over the high­way has been a top pri­or­ity of the Al As­sad gov­ern­ment since the early days of the war. Its slow and tor­tu­ous re­cov­ery, in many ways, traces the arc of the Syr­ian war.

The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment be­gan win­ning back seg­ments of the high­way, start­ing in 2014. That’s when Rus­sia joined the war on the side of Al As­sad, and es­sen­tially tipped it in his favour.

Towns and cities lo­cated along parts of the high­way, in­clud­ing in the Ghouta re­gion and in the suburbs of Da­m­as­cus, now lie in ru­ins af­ter long sieges and in­ces­sant bom­bard­ment forced them into sub­mis­sion. The Rus­sian-backed re­cap­ture of Aleppo in De­cem­ber 2016 was an­other ma­jor gamechange­r.

END OF REBELS’ ROAD

Un­der a Septem­ber 2018 agree­ment be­tween Rus­sia and Turkey, the M5 and M4 high­ways were sup­posed to be open for traf­fic, link­ing the gov­ern­ment’s strong­hold on the coast with Aleppo be­fore the end of that year. That never hap­pened, as in­sur­gents re­fused to move away and al­low joint Rus­sian-Turk­ish pa­trols to pro­tect the traf­fic there.

That even­tu­ally led to the lat­est gov­ern­ment of­fen­sive in Idlib, the last rebel-held bas­tion in the coun­try.

Gov­ern­ment troops backed by Rus­sia car­ried out sev­eral ma­jor ad­vances in Idlib, re­tak­ing towns and vil­lages on both sides of the mo­tor­way. The cap­ture of Khan Shaikhoun was the first ma­jor break­through, fol­lowed by Maaret Al Nu­man and Saraqeb, lo­cated on the in­ter­sec­tion be­tween the M4 and M5.

This week, Syr­ian troops re­cap­tured the last re­bel­con­trolled sec­tion of the high­way around Khan Al Assal. That brought the road un­der the full con­trol of Al As­sad’s forces for the first time since 2012.

The vic­tory state­ment came not from the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment, but from Rus­sia’s de­fence min­istry. It said in a state­ment Wednesday that “Syria’s most important trans­port artery” had been “freed” from rebel con­trol.

WHY IT MAT­TERS

The high­way’s cap­ture is pos­si­bly the most sig­nif­i­cant vic­tory for Al As­sad.

Ebrahim, the po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst, said the high­way is so vi­tal be­cause it links the coun­try’s two pow­er­houses — the cap­i­tal of Da­m­as­cus with the trad­ing hub of Aleppo.

“In other words it links Syria’s po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal with its eco­nomic cap­i­tal,” he said. It also links up with the M4 high­way at the Saraqeb knot, open­ing up traf­fic to the gov­ern­ment’s coastal strong­hold of Latakia and the port.

AP

The M5 high­way, re­cap­tured by the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment this week, is an important trans­port artery, vi­tal for the coun­try’s econ­omy as well as mov­ing troops.

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