Syrians suffer as crossings remain closed, and smuggling operations become pricey

Smuggling operations between the areas under the control of the Turkish-allied factions and those under the control of the Syrian regime have been ongoing since the main crossings were closed in March as part of measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

al-monitor A boy enters a tent at the Batinta camp for the internally displaced, after heavy rainfall in the north of Syria's northwestern Idlib province, Nov. 26, 2020. Photo by Omar Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images.
Sultan al-Kanj

Sultan al-Kanj

@AlkanjSultan

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Syria Conflict

Dec 11, 2020

IDLIB, Syria — Despite the Syrian opposition government’s March decision to close the crossings between the regime-controlled areas and the opposition areas, for fear of the outbreak of the coronavirus, smuggling operations are ongoing.

Locals told Al-Monitor that the smuggling points are located at the Sajur River, near Jarablus, and specifically at the villages of Aoun al-Dadat and Tokhar.

Activists who spoke to Al-Monitor said Turkish goods are smuggled into the areas controlled by pro-Turkey factions and then into the regime-controlled areas through merchants cooperating with some factions, in exchange for a large sum of money for each car loaded with Turkish goods to the areas of the Syrian regime. Then those cars pass under the supervision of some factions.

A source from an opposition faction, who refused to name it, told Al-Monitor, “Civilians wanting to leave the areas under the control of the Syrian regime are smuggled to the Syrian-Turkish borders in order to cross to Turkey and then to Greece, and then on to European countries.”

He added, “Most are young people whom the regime requests to serve in its army, but due to the prevailing corruption, they were able to get through all checkpoints by paying between $1,500 and $2,000. Once they reach areas held by the pro-Turkish factions, they illegally cross the Turkish-Syrian border and continue the migration route to Europe.”

Another well-informed source from an opposition faction, who also refused to name it, told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Smuggling points are now generating thousands of dollars for the factions and smugglers who collaborate with them. A car smuggling iron for example to regime-controlled areas has to pay between $800 and $1,000, while a truck of electronic parts costs $1,700; the amounts vary according to the type of cargo.”

An activist residing in the northern countryside of Aleppo, which is under the control of pro-Turkish factions, told Al-Monitor, “While the announced pretext for closing the main crossings is the coronavirus pandemic, some say the Turkish side does not want to open those crossings — but no indications or an official order are stipulating that. The smuggling posts are based in two areas — one near Afrin in northern Aleppo and the other in al-Bab, eastern Aleppo. It is known that faction members participate in smuggling operations through individuals or groups controlling the areas.”

Maj. Yusuf Hamoud, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army-affiliated Syrian National Army (SNA), told Al-Monitor, “There is no doubt that some smuggling operations occur and this is normal. We are exerting great efforts to curb this phenomenon; even if we are not doing enough now, we need to do our best so such operations do not increase.”

Omar Amin, an SNA leader who resides in Aleppo’s countryside, told Al-Monitor, “The factions are not involved in smuggling operations. These are false accusations to distort the factions’ image. Smuggling is a clandestine operation and it has its own methods. Developed countries cannot prevent it, so how can we? The factions do not have the capabilities to ensure full surveillance. Smugglers in our areas coordinate with smugglers in the areas of the regime and agree on smuggling routes that we cannot monitor. We have arrested some of these smugglers and have foiled several smuggling operations from our areas to the areas controlled by the regime or the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF].”

Nasser al-Awad, 48, who now lives in a camp in Idlib countryside, told Al-Monitor, “I came from Lebanon to visit my family that lives in a camp in Idlib countryside. When I arrived in Syria, I headed to Aleppo and stayed there for a month, waiting for the opportunity to go to Idlib countryside. I was introduced to a smuggler while I was in Aleppo. He took me by car to the SDF-controlled areas, and then to al-Tabqah through the desert. When we reached al-Tabqah, I paid $200. We then headed to Jarablus countryside, which is under the control of the FSA. We walked 5 kilometers during the night and reached the FSA-controlled areas. Then I paid $300. We headed to the city of Jarablus, and then we continued toward Idlib. The smuggling route from Aleppo to Idlib countryside cost me over $500 and great torment.”

Umm Mohammed, 65, who is now staying with relatives in Aleppo city, told Al-Monitor, “I came from Lebanon six months ago to see my son, whom I have not seen for five years; he resides in Idlib. But I was unable to pay $700 to reach Idlib and my health does not allow me to walk long distances. I am staying in Aleppo with some of my relatives, as I'm unable to get to Idlib.”

Omar Shaman, 70, who lives in the countryside of Idlib, told Al-Monitor, “I suffer from serious heart disease. I need surgery, but it cannot be performed in Idlib. I was also not allowed to go to Turkey for the operation, and my only son lives in Damascus. The doctors in Idlib told me that I could undergo the operation in Damascus, but I'm unable to make it there. Smugglers said I would need to pay $800 to take me to Damascus, but I cannot afford it.”

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