The crossings of Syria: War funded from citizens’ pockets

Investigated by – Mohamed Al-Khatib and Ahmed Haj Hamdou

Talal, in his 30s, lost his job due to the war in Syria, after the destruction of the car repair shop where he used to work, close to Aleppo. He started working as a merchant, transporting food supplies and electronics between towns and governorates, using his white “Kia” pickup truck.

Talal (pseudonym) moves between the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib each day. Each time, he has to pay crossing taxes although he is moving between Syrian lands, from the start of his journey to the end.

The war in Syria had torn the country to several zones controlled by fighting military factions. They open their borders to trade and population through “crossings” from where they get taxes. Observers say that this money is partially used to feed funding the war.

Aleppo city is probably where the situation is most complicated. The city has five crossings, which are the only options for the movement of goods and people between different controlled zones: Kurdish autonomous region, Euphrates Shield opposition troops, supported by Turkey, Levant Liberation Committee, and the governmental forces.

The taxes imposed at the crossing by various military groups and militias led to a hike in prices that reached more than 90%, based on how many crossings are crossed. This investigation looks into this, in the opposition controlled areas.

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Map of the control of armed militias in north-west Syria

We agreed with Talal to accompany him in one of his journeys, going through crossings controlled by different factions from the “Syrian Opposition”, and Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), between Aleppo and Idlib countryside.

At 8 a.m, 12 August, Talal was getting ready to take his truck from a Kurdish autonomous region to an area controlled by the opposition Levant Liberation Committee.

The truck was loaded with an empty fuel tank, 5,000 Liters capacity, a mid-sized mobile power generator, and an oil Harraka [Primitive oil refining machine]; the 3 heads type.

At the entrance to Katma in northern Aleppo countryside, there was a military checkpoint controlled by the YPG. Talal paid the fees after they inspected the truck.

A copy of the receipt had shown that it is issued by “Efrin Financial Department, Customs Unit” controlled by the Democratic autonomous region. It included the type of the receipt, its number, date, driver’s name, vehicle type, and the cargo it carries. The military at the checkpoint calculated that the cargo is worth 3500 USD, although its value at origin is only 1500 USD according to merchants. The military checkpoint impose on the driver crossing a fee of 10% of the value of cargo, or 350 USD in this case.

The process took around one hour because of all the cars waiting at the checkpoint. After an hour and a half, Talal’s truck reached the Al-Shaykh Oqail crossing close to Deir Samaan, between western Aleppo countryside and eastern Idlib countryside, controlled by elements from the Levant Liberation Committee. They imposed a tax of 450 USD.

In all, Talal paid 750 USD as crossing fees for cargo estimated at the value of 1500 USD, or half the value. He says that there is no consistent estimation for tax, as each crossing estimates the cargo value and the tax as they see fit.

What happened with Talal’s cargo happens with basic goods for citizens, like gas, fuel, cement, and iron. And it was necessary to go further than A`zaz to the east to track down the journey of these goods.

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A $ 350 Kurdish autonomous region receipt at Efrin

Restless movement… and you pay first

In Eastern Aleppo countryside, around 20 km to the north west of Manbij, there is the town of Al-Hamran, where there is a crossing carrying its name and an eastern checkpoint controlling entry to the Euphrates Shield troops area, which to its western tip lies A`zaz, from where Talal’s journey starts.

Traffic is restless. Cargo come from the crossing in Al-Hamran, especially gas and oil trucks, coming from the oil fields in Eastern Syria, controlled by the Kurdish autonomous authority, crossing to the opposition strongholds. In the other direction, trucks loaded with cement and iron are passing.

In a big square, surrounded by a mud wall, dozens of oil trucks wait for entry, after drivers pay the set taxes in a small room, at the entrance to the square. They get their receipts from the employees working for armed opposition.

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A 500 US $ tax was received at the Alhamran crossing from a truck carrying a Baton iron

A driver, in his 40s, who said his name is Abu Ahmed, said, “without this receipt we cannot cross”.

Abu Ahmed who works as an oil transporter says that opposition factions take two dollars on each barrel of crude oil. The Kurdish authority that controls the oil fields do not take any fees at the Al-Hamran crossing, given that they are the authority controlling the prices of oil.

Price of a crude oil barrel in Manbij, controlled by the Kurdish authority, is 47 USD, as reported by Abu Khaled, a trader.

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Infograph shows the fees at the crossings for each barrel of fuel since shipment from the city of Manbaj until his arrival in the city of Dara Azza west of Aleppo

Kurdish authority has the lions share in the oil and gas fields in Syria, after it expelled ISIS from extended areas in Deir al-Zour, Raqqa, and Al-Hasaka.

After crossing from Al-Hamran to Euphrates Shield at the Turkish borders, controlled by an opposition group supported by Turkey, the oil trucks go to empty their cargo in the Harakas, which are primitive oil refineries, that rely on heating the crude to get oil products: Diesel, Kerosene, and Fuel. However, the largest percentage of trucks keep on going to the Al-Shat crossing, to the west of A`zaz, into Efrin, controlled by the Kurdish authority, then they go into zones controlled by the opposition group Levant Liberation Committee, in western Aleppo.

At Al-Shat crossing, controlled by opposition forces, the trucks stop aligned in a long line that goes on for hundreds of meters, while the employees do their inspections and estimation of cargo volume and weight, using a land scale, to estimate taxes and collect them.

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A sample of the tax regulations imposed by the opposition at the Shat crossing

Mohamed Kousa (a pseudonym) is an oil truck driver. He said, “I pay fees for each barrel until reaching Idlib. 2 USD to the opposition group at al-Shat, 10 USD to the Kurdish authority in Efrin, as well as 2 USD for the opposition forces at Al-Shaykh Oqail crossing”. These numbers were confirmed by a fuel oil truck driver we met at the crossing. He said that the crossing administration takes the receipts from drivers on moving out.

This means that the fuel barrel’s price becomes 63 USD, excluding transportation costs and revenue cut for the traders. In other words, 36% is added to the price as the barrels moves across crosses, until it reaches Darat `Azza, western Aleppo.

The table below shows prices we got from Aleppo Media Center, a center run by a group of Syrian activists and journalists, based on a survey for traders and citizens regarding some fossil fuels, in various areas across Aleppo governorate (December 2017):

Over time, the crossings created a specific economic situation in each of the controlled zones, that is different from the situation in other zones. This is reflected in the big difference between prices of items in the table above.

The “interests” language wins

Crosses work according to the mutual benefit mechanism. Each zone produces specific materials not available in other zones. While the Kurdish controlled area exports oil and gas to the opposition, it gets in return cement, iron, clothes, and food material, of Turkish origin.

All Turkish-Syrian crossings are closed, except for those controlled by the opposition: Jarabulus, Bab Al-Salama, Bab Al-Hawa”, thus, there are no land crossings in the regime controlled zones or in the Kurdish controlled zones, with Turkey.

A.S, a building materials trader from Jarabulus, north east of Euphrates Shield zone, says that he imports cement and iron from Turkey, and distribute it to various cities in norther Syria, where demand on building materials hiked recently, due to lower fighting intensity in the country and the newly gained stability in some areas.

He said during our interview with him over Whatsapp, while asking not to publish his name, that the process of transporting one ton of black cement from Turkey to Manbij costs around 17 USD in crossing taxes alone, while the cement ton’s price in Turkey is around 50 USD. The taxes are taken as following: from Bab Al-Salama, 5 USD; from Al-Hamran, 7 USD to opposition and 5 USD to Kurdish authority. Thus, the taxes at the crossings cause the increase in cement price on reaching Manbij, by 34%, in addition to the transportation costs and traders’ revenues.

The same process applies with Iron, as the transportation of one ton from Turkey to Manbji costs 20 USD in taxes at crossings, according to A.S, while the cost of one ton of iron is 500 USD. Taxes are paid as following: Bab Al-Salama crossing, 8 USD; Al-Hamran crossing, 7 USD to opposition and 5 USD to Kurdish authority.

Which means that taxes at crossing lead to an increase in iron prices until it reach Manbij, by 4%, in addition to transportation costs and traders revenues.

In April, the Bab Al-Salama administration put up a list of taxes it imposes on materials entering through the crossing from Turkey, and it has the same prices as those stated by A.S.

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A sample of the taxes imposed by Bab Elsalama crossing on goods

At the opposition strongholds towards the north west of Syria (Idlib, and western Aleppo), the main source of cement and iron is Turkey, and these supplies come through Bab Al-Hawa. With the Turkish authorities closing of the crossing, except in the case of food materials, in 10 August, Bab Al-Salama in Euphrates Shield zone became the only remaining option.

For the truck to reach Bab Al-Salama in Idlib, it passes through four crossings: Al-Salama, Al-Shat, Efrin, and Al-Skheykh Oqail. This made the prices of cement and iron skyrocket in Idlib and surrounding cities. Taxes at crossings for transporting one ton of black cement, from Bab Al-Salama to Idlib, are almost the same as the price of that ton (90% inflation). Bab Al-Salama gets 5 USD, Al-Shat gets 10 USD, autonomous region in Efrin gets 20 USD, and Al-Sheykh Oqail crossing gets 10 USD, according to A.S., and as verified through tables provided to Aleppo media center, about taxes imposed at Al-Shat crossing, and at the Efrin autonomous region.

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a sample of taxes imposed by autonomous region in Efrin

Taxes for one ton of iron from Bab Al-Salama to Idlib are as follows: Bab Al-Salama, 7 USD; Al-Shat checkpoint, 10 USD; Efrin, 20 USD; Al-Shaykh Oqail, 10 USD.

This means that taxes at the crossings lead to an increase in the iron prices, on reaching western Aleppo, by 10%, in addition to the costs of transportation and traders revenues.

On 18 October, the Turkish authorities reopened Bab Al-Hawa crossing, which led to a decrease in cement and iron prices in Idlib once again, as the table below (from Aleppo Media Center) illustrates. It is based on information from building material traders in various zones in Aleppo governorates, from December.

Where does revenues go?

Fees collected at the crossing do not show in the form of developing public services and infrastructure.

Suhaib Al-Boushi, the economists syndicate member, said, “Taxes are financial commitments, imposed by the state on citizens in different rates in order to participate in the public spending of the state. In our current state, Syria is divided into small states. Each faction or militia has their own tax system. But these taxes do not contribute to public good. They finance the faction or even go to the pockets of specific people”.

“The taxes are imposed by the state to redistribute wealth”, he added, “It takes from the rich and give to the poor. It ensures the stability of prices. But crossings here adopt the totally inverse logic: it takes taxes from the poor and sieged to add to the pockets of the traders and lords of war”.

Fighting

Crossings with this understanding, in the current situation, represent a financing source for fighting factions in Syria, unlike any unreliable foreign support they might get.

At Al-Hamran crossing in eastern Aleppo countryside, between the Kurdish autonomous zones and the Euphrates Shield troops opposition group, two opposition factions fought in October over who controls the crossing.

Statements by factions and eyewitnesses from the population show that the fighting happened between the Al-Jabha Al-Shamiya and Kutlat Al-Sultan Murad, and both follow the Euphrates Shield that got Turkish support to expel ISIS from northern Aleppo countryside.

Some villagers from Um Julud village, close to the crossing, said that fighting erupted between 13 and 15 October 2017. Then, a curfew was applied due to the fierce fighting between the two factions.

On 15 October, a statement was issued by the Ministry of Defense at the interim authority established through Turkish support in 2013. It called upon the two factions to “resort to reason and set weapons aside, that should be directed at the enemy”. The statement asked both factions to “meet under the sponsorship of the ministry to end the current tensions”.

On 17 October the two factions met, and the problem was settled after agreeing on four rules: ceasefire and withdraw defenses; release detainees from both sides instantly; leave the administration of all current crosses and other crosses that might be established later to the interim authority; establish a judicial committee to decide on the rights of both sides.

Given how critical the situation is, it wasn’t easy to get from the factions controlling crossings any data about how revenues are spent and distributed.

Revenues from the crossings, for the three different parties involved, do not go to the public good as Al-Boushi stated. They finance various factions and militias. He added, “There must be transparency and clarity”.

Until theses crossings that control Syrian lands now vanish, Talal will keep on having to hide his frustration at paying taxes at each crossing inside Syria. He cannot do anything against all these weapons.

Talal, a father of four, said, “On many days I return home after a long journey without making any revenues because of all the taxes I need to pay at crossings”.