Syrian regime competes with factions in collecting money from roadblocks

Investigated by: Ahmed Ibrahim

Amir transports fresh vegetables daily from his city, Al-Suwaida in southern Syria, to the Capital, Damascus. Amir (39 years old) carried on with his work even after the Syrian crisis started. The conflict winds didn’t reach his city, Al-Suwaida, a small serene agricultural town, well-known for its black rocks, and where the small Syrian Druze minority lives. Amir’s work, however, was affected since 2002; not because of the war per se, but because of the roadblocks spread out across the region fully controlled by governmental forces since May 2017. This led to some sort of a “crossing” phenomenon on the roads.

The crossings increased substantially, in zones under control of various parties in the war that erupted in 2011. Amir’s problem, however, is because of the crossing on the roads under full control of the regime.

Since 2015, the roadblocks on the way between Damascus and Al-Suwaida imposed tolls on him, as the cost of escort service, with the claim that the road is not safe. After escorting was cancelled in May, the tolls on commercial cargoes didn’t stop. Amir in fact now is asked to pay it as crossing passage tax.

Because of the crossing tolls, and other tricks the regime uses to collect money, the gap between the prices of goods on both sides of the crossings could reach the threshold of doubling the price, or even more, as this investigation documents.

On Thursday morning, 19 January, Amir drove his truck filled with vegetables and fruits to Arraj Al-Sit, Damascus. The trip was taken through the autostrad highway between Al-Suwaida and Damascus. He passed by many villages in the countryside of both cities.

At 10:30 in the morning, Amir passed by Hazm in northern Al-Suwaida countryside, on the international highway, to reach the Al-Musamiya roadblock, guarded by fighters from the Fourth Division, one of the most ferocious divisions in the Syrian regime’s army.

To pass through this roadblock, one needs to wait between 10 minutes and 3 hours, “depending on the whims of the roadblock”, as Amir said, and after waiting, one needs to pay “crossing fees”.

After around 40 minutes of waiting in the slowly moving forward queue of vehicles, Amir reached the roadblock. As usual, the security personnel instructed him to pull over on the dirt margin of the road. A group of security personnel approached the truck’s cargo bed to inspect the vegetables cargo. Then Amir paid an invoice of around 35 thousand SYP (around 70 USD).

Amir paid the money. He then moved on to the capital. He said that this happens with him as well as with all drivers carrying any cargo.

Most crossings imposed by the regime are mainly concentrated in Daraa, southern Syria, and in norther countryside of Homs, central Syria, where there are dozens of besieged villages and towns.

It started with escorting

Originally, the military roadblocks set up by the Syrian regime used the term “escorting” to cover up on the collection of money on cargo passing between Syrian governorates. Escorting in this context means that security personnel from these roadblocks escort the truck carrying goods through zones controlled by the regime, to protect it from any dangers, as if this is not a core function of the government.

According to the invoices we got from traders, the regime imposed “crossing fees” at two crossing in northern Homs countryside, which are Al-Sam`alil and Al-Dar Al-Kabira (see crossing invoices here).

From signs that showed up in pictures in the public domain for crossings controlled by the regime, and from invoices handed to traders, it turned out that there are two escorting companies, “Al-Hisn for Escorting Services” and “Al-Nour Commercial Foundation”.

Al-Hisn provides guarding and protection services. It is based in Jirmana, Damascus countryside. According to a license issued by Syrian Ministry of Interior, number “2 Q.A`”, dated 15 January 2014, for one year, it handles the protection and guarding of banks, communications, and headquarters of oil companies in Damascus.

The license document also stated that the company can practice its activities in Damascus and its countryside. It is allowed to use wireless communication devices, to be determined based on needs, in a later decision.

The company was also allowed to use civilian pick-up trucks, vans, 4×4 jeeps, spotlights, electric-rubber stick, surveillance cameras, explosives detection gear, as well as pistols and Russian guns, to be determined based on needs, by means of a later decision.

The company, the first of its kind in Syria, is owned by two persons: Ammar Mohamed Ibn Ahmed, and Sameeh Aaqel Ibn Ali. It wasn’t possible to collect more clear information on the two persons, something that activists say might indicate that these two people could be a front for an important person in Syria, especially because people who would get such licenses are very likely to be trusted by the regime and close to it.

Circumventing decisions

On the 19th of May 2017, Syrian authorities decreed the cancellation of escorting (instantly) after many complaints of theft under cover of escorting were filed.

The decision issued by the “General Command of the Army and Armed Forces – Military and Security Committee in Aleppo”, number 6400, stated that, “To all security branches, civil and military police, civil defense, and Al-Bustan Philanthropist Association, according to oral instructions issued by the commander of the Military and Security Committee in Aleppo Governorate, and starting Friday 19/5/2017: escorting system for items transported inside and outside Aleppo shall be cancelled. All violations of these instructions will be faced with accountability”.

The decision went on: “Personnel responsible for escorting in governorates are summoned to the Military and Security Committee, instantly, to brief them about the decision and to get their orders”.

Money collection endured in another form. Military roadblocks “in coalition” with the Syrian regime’s army, increased the tolling activities and prices, as apparent from the price lists imposed by the regime later on, and from the invoices we got from traders.

This is not claimed as the fees for escorting this time, but as fees paid through regime crossings that issued a price list for the tax, and started imposing tolls on commercial convoys, even between governorates controlled by the regime. One of the most glaring examples is “Al-Musamiya” crossing on the highway between Damascus and Al-Suwaida, that imposes taxes on cargo passage between governorates, while the regime in fact is the only authority in actual control in these two governorates.

The investigator collected testimonies from drivers who said that the roadblock run by 4th Division is still imposing tolls on the movement of trucks.

Musheir (a driver in his 40s), who passes on an almost daily basis through this region since he transports fresh vegetables between Damascus and Al-Suwaida throughout the last decade, said that the process became so complicated recently.

He said that earlier, the Al-Musamiya crossing was imposing tolls on cars with plates belonging to Daraa governorate, from where the Syrian uprising started in 2011. But recently, tolls were imposed on all cars, even those carrying plates belonging to Al-Suwaida.

The Syrian Ministry of Defense, that controls the roadblocks, didn’t reply to emails requesting comments.

Amir said that in late November, he was carrying cargo, on his way to Al-Suwaida. He was stopped at the same crossing, and was asked to pay 200 thousand SYP (around 40 USD). He refused to pay, so all the cargo in the truck was unloaded with the claim that there is a need to inspect the cargo. They sabotaged a big chunk of it, and they held his car for five hours. Then, they let him pass after they confiscated the car license, and after asking him to return with the money requested in order to get back the papers.

According to Musheir, drivers from Al-Suwaida ceased working because of the many tolls imposed on the way in both directions.

Daraa crossings

In early May 2017, 19 days before the cancellation of escorting decision, the military roadblocks controlled by the regime imposed “crossing fees” at Khirbat Ghazala crossing, in Daraa countryside, in order to let convoys pass between Damascus and Daraa, in both directions (see crossing invoices here).

In response, an armed opposition group called “Shabab Al-Sunna forces” issued a statement that the group “waged an attack using heavy weaponry against the crossing to confiscate the regime’s ability to run it”. The attack ended in the death of four persons from the attacking group, and the crossing remained intact.

Regions under control of the regime in Daraa import fuels, medicines, and electric equipment from Damascus. It exports to it vegetables and meats.

In February, around 8 months since the crossing was set up, there was a prices hike in basic goods in Daraa, with a percentage of price increases that reached around 100%, according to the tables below.

Philanthropist militias

The “escorting cancellation” decision included the name of a “philanthropist association”, which is Al-Bustan Association, established by the Syrian businessman Ramy Makhlouf, President Bashar Al-Assad’s cousin. According to the official information provided by the association on its facebook page, it was established in May 1999, by Makhlouf, “with the aim of reaching a prestigious standing in the field of philanthropy”. The association has a military arm, known locally as “Al-Bustan Troops”.

According to testimonies collected by the investigator from the local population, and from “citizen journalists” in Al-Suwaida, the activities of Al-Bustan became visible in 2012, under the guise of philanthropist work, but then it developed to become the entity controlling the situation in town. Its members have strong presence in the city and its countryside. Local population call them “The Airforce group”, given its linkages to the much-feared Airforce Intelligence Branch.

Military elements from the Syrian regime confessed in recordings posted by the Syrian opposition that “Al-Bustan Troops” took part in attacks on Syrian cities and towns.

Amir says he was one of the drivers who protested on the morning of 14 May against escorting toll. Dozens of drivers and traders from Al-Suwaida governorate waged a sit-in and closed the international highway between Damascus and Al-Suwaida that day.

The protest, however, didn’t change anything. It was called off, and escorting was canceled, but the roadblocks are still functional, as if nothing changed.

For Amir to compensate for his losses at the roadblock, he increases the prices of vegetables he sells. This negatively and directly affects the consumers of such goods. The citizen pays the prices, at the roadblocks run by armed factions, and at the roadblocks run by the regime.