‘Truckers without borders’ sustain Syria

An interview with a truck driver working in Syria shows how truck drivers are the only parties permitted to pass freely through the country's violent internal borders.

al-monitor A truck carries goods along a street in Aleppo, Syria, July 29, 2015.  Photo by REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail.

Topics covered

trade routes, trade, syrian regime, syria crisis, syria, pyd, islamic state, is, humanitarian crisis, fsa

Sep 4, 2015

Syrian truck drivers are the only ones who maintain good relations with commanders of the regime, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Islamic State (IS) and Democratic Union Party (PYD) forces, all while constantly monitoring the clashes.

In the four-year Syrian civil war, 250,000 people have been killed and 4 million of them have become refugees in neighboring countries. Millions of them are struggling to survive in a country divided four ways between the Bashar al-Assad regime, the opposition, IS and the PYD. Wherever they live, these Syrians meet their daily needs of flour, medicine, baby food, fuel and clothing through merchants and truck drivers who are the only ones who can cross the internal borders.

It is lethal trade for the drivers. They navigate essential, fine points of survival: Without distinction, they maintain good relations with the entire gamut of factions and religiously keep track of daily clashes and events on the ground. Their biggest advantage is the constant need of all fighting parties. This is their story.

Salim is one of millions of Syrians who is a victim of civil war. His family lives in Aleppo. He doesn’t have a permanent living place because he makes his living trucking through a country whose economy has collapsed. Like many of his colleagues, he has faced death many times. Salim’s story is the story of how people remaining in Syria obtain their survival needs like food, fuel and other basics and the trade relations between enemy groups. Syrians who have decided to stay obtain their flour, medicine and fuel thanks to truckers like Salim who can enter any zone, no matter who controls it. Syrian truckers are probably the only group who can cross the internal borders of different groups.

Truckers are not very talkative. They don’t want to attract attention. Only Salim and a businessman who goes by MU shared the details of the “lethal commerce” on condition we don’t use their full names. Their biggest advantage is that all fighters, wherever they operate, have one thing in common: They have to take bread home. MU explained, “Trade routes are never closed fully in any area. At the end, we carry flour, pasta and oil. When we take goods to one area, families of people fighting there also benefit.”

There are other fine points to keep in mind when shuttling through internal borders controlled by enemy groups. For example, truckers constantly monitor the safety of their routes through people they know. To find goods and to carry them, they have to maintain good relations with commanders in every zone. MU said, “They inform us when they seize commercial commodities. That way, they make money and we get goods to sell.”

A security guard in a Mercedes escorts trucks that carry valuable goods from Esselame to the Kurdish Afrin region. This Mercedes is the ticket that allows the trucks to pass unhindered through areas controlled by various groups. When fighting groups see the Mercedes, they know that the trucks carry goods that won’t be touched and let them pass.

Although production has slowed down enormously because of the civil war, it hasn’t fully come to a standstill in main cities like Aleppo and Damascus. Still, there is no electricity in most parts of the country. Small workshops produce goods, from textiles to car generators. As they can’t be exported to Turkey, Iraq or other countries, they are sold inside the country. Telephone networks are not working. Merchants and truckers learn what is produced through word of mouth from local commanders. MU said, “This is commerce with the conditions of 100 years ago.”

The regime supporters, IS and the PYD have set up their own taxation systems in the areas they control. This tax is a kind of life insurance for merchants and truckers. For example, in the PYD area, if you are carrying tea and sugar, you pay $200 for each truck. Truckers say the system is different in the IS area: “If you are transiting through [IS] area, you pay small amounts. But if you are delivering to their area, they determine a tax based on the type of good, its value and identity of the merchant. Assad, [IS] and PYD have established systems, but not the FSA. The FSA has too many factions, and there is no established taxation system [there.]”

When explaining how they can move in and out of all areas, MU told the latest situation in the country, in the following excerpt of the interview.

Al-Monitor:  Almost every corner of Syria is a war zone. The country is divided in four, everyone fighting each other, but you are moving around and cross internal borders. How is that?

MU:  Truckers know the safe routes. We constantly monitor where clashes are, like we follow weather reports. Coalition airplanes attack certain locations in coordination with PYD. The Assad regime informs its units of where they are going to hit. Merchants are always in touch with these parties. That is how we decide which route to take. Anyhow, whether it’s Assad, PYD or [IS] zone, there is not much interference with merchants. [The armed forces] want the trade to continue because they all benefit from it. Sometimes clashing groups declare temporary truces, say for four hours, to allow commercial vehicles to move freely. The latest was at Al Rai between Haseke and Raqqa where the PYD and IS halted clashes at certain times to allow the trade to go on.

Al-Monitor:  You mean they suddenly declare a cease-fire for business to go on?

MU:  Yes, there are severe clashes. You always see corpses all over. But when they see us, they say, ‘Let these people pass and we will resume fighting.’ They continue to kill each other after our vehicles pass through.

Al-Monitor:  What are favorite routes of truckers?

MU:  In general, we use a 400-km (249-mile) route between Idlib and Haseke. We prefer night travels. They have snipers at certain locations. Drivers know well where to turn off their headlights. If their vehicles are hit by snipers, then they have the danger of being robbed by Bedouins. Fighting groups are not the sole danger.

Al-Monitor:  Are any drivers killed?

MU:  Yes. PKK and [IS] regions are dangerous. Militants who stand at the entrance of their checkpoints are usually very unfriendly. But this is business. We take to roads knowing the dangers. For example, most of our drivers are from the FSA and they are wanted people. But they are a courageous lot. They never leave without saying their final farewells especially when they head to an Assad zone.

Al-Monitor:  What about money? How are payments made?

MU:  You don’t pay the drivers. There are money changers in every area who transfer up to $5 million a day. Some build secret compartments in their trucks and cars.

Al-Monitor:  A kind of hawale [bank money order] …

MU:  Better than hawale. No bank can transfer that much money in such a short time. Of course you have to pay 1-2% service commissions.

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