Many factories in Aleppo have been plundered and their machinery sold abroad. Some business owners have moved their factories to Egypt to avoid looting and extortion.
One such victim, who lived through the cruelty of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and paid heavily for it, said, “You cannot believe the level [of] poverty people have sunken into. In al-Hasakah, my cousin had to chop down the large old tree I used [to] play under when I was a child, just to provide heat for her family.” He told me not only of trees but of factories that had been plundered in Aleppo. This proxy war — which one side calls “the holy jihad against the dictator” and the other calls “a fight against terror” — is devastating the country. It has created its own economy, warlords and criminals. The three most commonly uttered words nowadays are extortion, confiscation and looting.
Massive machinery on sale
The information I gathered from first-hand sources paints a terrifying picture. In Homs, an oil drill was dismantled and loaded on trailers, probably headed for the Cilvegozu crossing to Turkey. The rig, worth $15 to 20 million, was sold for $1 million in the United Arab Emirates.
Four months ago, a group raided the jean factory of Kurdish businessman Muhammed Seydo in Aleppo’s Sheikh Najjar industrial zone, and promised it protection in return for money. For these extortionists, money formerly paid to officials of the regime is now going to armed militant groups. A second group showed up, and they likewise extorted Seydo. It was not long before fighting broke out between the two groups. This resulted in the burning down of the enormous, four-story factory.
Escape to Egypt
Touma Saliba is one of the most prominent names in the famous Saliba family. Fearing looting and destruction, he moved his $2 million worth of jean-washing machinery from his textile factory to his business sites in Egypt. Many Christian families have followed suit.
Sami Abdi is also getting ready to relocate his jeans factory. He did his research in Turkey, found costs to be too high and decided to move to Egypt.
A brake-lining plant's owner described how his “entire wealth and life” had been dismantled. Nobody knows what happened to his machinery or who bought it.
A group called Ahrar al-Sham took over one of the largest olive-oil plants in Aleppo. Nearly 1,000 tons of olive oil stores were looted, as the “cost of protecting the factory.” One of two things likely happened: they were either sold throughout the country or sent into Turkey through Cilvegozu. According to reports, olive oil from Syria is on sale in Turkey for 50 to 85 cents per liter.
Jabhat al-Nusra, a group affiliated with al-Qaeda, took over the Alebi textile plant on the Aleppo-Damascus highway. The factory was burned down after its machinery was dismantled. There are two possibilities: either the factory owner — Muhammed Alebi, who lives in Beirut — moved the machinery or it was dismantled and sold. According to the plant manager, “the machinery is not with the owner.”
The Semiramis family’s shirt-making factory was emptied. Nobody knows where the machinery went.
Until the Sheik Najjar industrial zone was occupied by the opposition forces, those responsible for the plundering of 15 other factories were soldiers, intelligence personnel or regime-backed shabiha militias.
There are also “Robin Hoods”
These targeted businessmen are Syria's top industrialists. Apart from the gangs whose only activity is plundering, there seems to be two reasons the opposition fighters are also involved in looting: to fill their pockets while fighting the regime or to distribute the spoils to people so they might be praised as “Robin Hoods.”
It is not only the factories that are plundered, according to a Dec. 28 report by The Guardian’s Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. He quoted an opposition commander, who deemed the area he controlled in Aleppo as “the state of Abu Ali Sulaibi,” and said: “Every single house has been looted. And the [government] army has never been to this area. It is us who looted them!" The journalist commented: “As the Syrian civil war has stagnated and Aleppo has fractured into 'liberated' neighbourhoods run by different militias, Abu Ali and commanders like him have become the rulers of a series of mini-fiefdoms.”
Legacy on sale
In a Washington Post report from Feb. 13, Taylor Luck said the rebels fighting Assad were looting and selling antiquities to finance the purchase of weapons. “The rebels, struggling to finance their effort, have joined an emerging trade in illicitly acquired Syrian artifacts and antiquities, selling off the country’s past as the war for its future intensifies,” Luck wrote. Luck quoted Jihad Abu Saud of Idlib, who claimed to have found tablets dating back to the Bronze Age, saying, “Some days we are fighters; others we are archaeologists.”
Amman is the hub
According to the France-based Association for the Protection of Syrian Archeology, 12 of 36 museums in the country have been plundered, despite claims by the official Directorate of Antiquities and Museums that the exhibits are safe. One coordinator from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Abu Mohammed Hamad, was quoted in the Post report defending the sale of these priceless treasures: “It is within our right to use whatever resources we can find.”
The first stop for smugglers is Amman. Antique seller Mohammed Khalil of Amman told the Post, ““Every day we are getting calls about Syrian gold, Syrian mosaics, Syrian statues. Damascus is being sold right here in Amman, piece by piece.”
On Feb. 14, in a report trying to explain how the opposition was attempting to fight crime, Turkey’s Anatolia News Agency said that of the 450 people held in a prison set up by the FSA in Aleppo, 100 were FSA soldiers.
Of course, nobody will claim that soldiers, intelligence personnel and shabiha are not involved in looting and smuggling. On one side we have the collapse of an economy with the plundering of factories, and on the other hand, homes are ravaged and business places abandoned because of the war. This is yet another face of the war that has killed tens of thousands.