After 3 years of uneasy truce, sudden regime offensive disrupts East Ghouta tunnel trade

DAMASCUS: The Syrian regime is building a siege around three rebel-held neighborhoods in eastern Damascus that serve as an entry point for smuggling food, fuel and other supplies into the adjacent, opposition-controlled suburbs east of the capital.

The three east Damascus neighborhoods of al-Qaboun, Tishreen and Barzeh form a small opposition pocket between the blockaded East Ghouta suburbs and regime-controlled Damascus. The government-held Damascus-Homs highway splits East Ghouta from the three neighborhoods by only a few hundred meters, but a network of rebel-built tunnels run underneath the highway and link the two opposition areas.

The tunnels allow smugglers to sneak vital goods into East Ghouta, which has been encircled by the Syrian regime since 2012. Although most goods reach East Ghouta via semi-recognized trading points regulated by the Syrian government, the tunnels were—until recently—one of the few ways for rebels to bring much-needed supplies into East Ghouta without regime approval.

But last month, government forces moved to encircle the rebel-held pocket in eastern Damascus city and sever one of the most important lifelines for neighboring East Ghouta.

On February 17, regime checkpoints on the roads leading in and out of Barzeh—the northernmost neighborhood in the eastern Damascus pocket—prohibited civilians from exiting, and banned food and supplies from entering.

By cutting off all access to roads leading to Barzeh, the regime severed the first link in the smuggling operation that supplies East Ghouta. In a matter of days, smugglers ran out of goods to send into the suburbs, and the tunnel smuggling operation ground to a halt.

 Qaboun district on February 28. Photo courtesy of Qaboun Media Center.

The blockade of Barzeh coincided with an intense bombing campaign on all three rebel-held eastern Damascus neighborhoods, catching residents who had lived under an informal ceasefire there for more than three years by surprise.

Over the past three weeks, the regime has continued to attack the area with airstrikes, rockets and ground assaults in what appears to be a campaign to capture the three districts from the rebels.

Since the regime offensive began, more than 50 people have been killed and 200 injured, the Unified Damascus Media Office, a group of Syrian journalists active in the greater Damascus area, reported on March 6.

On Monday alone, at least six airstrikes struck al-Qaboun. Artillery and rocket fire have been reported every day this week. Syrian state media has not directly commented on the offensive, but a March 7 report released by state media agency SANA condemned “terrorist” rocket attacks on Damascus “launched from East Ghouta and al-Qaboun.”

Holes in the siege

The loss of Barzeh, al-Qaboun and Tishreen would be a major blow to the opposition in East Ghouta, severing a “crucial lifeline for East Ghouta” and allowing the regime to “tighten its siege” on the area, citizen journalist Sitar a-Dimashqi told Syria Direct last month.

When the breadbasket of East Ghouta, the fertile Marj region, fell to the regime last May, the smuggling tunnels helped mitigate the impact of the loss by allowing rebels to smuggle food into the suburbs.

Aboveground, the main entry point for supplies to reach East Ghouta—with regime approval—is the al-Wafideen crossing on the northern frontline with government forces.

A semi-recognized checkpoint under regime control, al-Wafideen allows vendors in East Ghouta to buy goods brought from Damascus and then sell them inside the blockade at highly inflated prices. Local war profiteers cooperate with regime officials to facilitate the movement of supplies into the rebel-held stronghold.

The al-Wafideen crossing is run by the local war profiteer Mohedinne al-Manfoush, an elusive figure who owns a well-known dairy and food distribution company.

Al-Manfoush has struck deals with both the regime and rebels to permit smugglers to sell food to traders in East Ghouta, who stock their grocery stores with his products. The arrangement has allegedly made him rich, reports the Washington D.C.-based think tank Atlantic Council.

Though it is unclear how al-Manfoush forged his close relationships with the regime, his regular bribes to government officials to keep the al-Wafideen crossing open total in the “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” a member of the local council in Barzeh tells Syria Direct.

Although the regime’s latest offensive in east Damascus has interrupted the movement of supplies through the underground smuggling tunnels, the al-Wafideen crossing is still operating normally, albeit with “raised prices,” says the councilman.

Rebel officials and civilians alike recognize al-Manfoush’s crucial role in feeding East Ghouta. Muhammad Ratib, the owner of a money-exchange service that works closely with international companies and aid organizations, estimates that 150 tons of food and other daily necessities enter via al-Wafideen every day.

If the opposition lost the smuggling tunnels for good, it would place East Ghouta almost entirely at the mercy of the regime for all its supplies. Fuel, food, medicine, weapons and ammunition would no longer come through the tunnels, and the rebels would be forced to negotiate or cooperate with the regime to bring in even the most basic goods.

If the regime closed the al-Wafideen crossing, with the tunnels out of service, East Ghouta could witness a “catastrophe,” warns the head of a humanitarian aid organization active in the rebel-held enclave.

The possibility of a food shortage and an airtight siege on East Ghouta is now sparking panic among its 450,000 residents, with the price of daily goods tripling in some cases as residents rush to hoard food.

A ‘brutal’ offensive

Barzeh, al-Qaboun and Tishreen all signed on to truces with the regime more than three years ago.

In January 2014, Barzeh agreed to an informal ceasefire with the regime that halted the fighting but allowed rebels to remain in the area. A month later, in February 2014, rebels in al-Qaboun and Tishreen agreed to a similar, informal truce. Despite infrequent clashes and the regime’s encirclement of the area, the ceasefire held until last month.

Both the government and opposition benefitted from the truces. Despite the regime’s encirclement of the area and its scrutiny of goods passing through checkpoints, children could return to school, university students could leave to attend classes in downtown Damascus, the regime provided water and electricity and life—for the most part—returned to normal.

The truce also stipulated that the regime regain access to the crucial highway running through Barzeh that connects government-held Damascus with the Alawite-majority Dahyat al-Assad, a regime-controlled enclave north of East Ghouta that is home to a large number of senior army officers and officials.

Several months ago, the regime added another condition to the terms of the truce: that the rebels in al-Qaboun stop sending goods through the smuggling tunnels.

“The regime requested that we close the tunnels that link al-Qaboun and East Ghouta,” a member of Barzeh’s local council tells Syria Direct. “We had expected they would attack at some point, but we didn’t know when.”

“We had no idea it would be this brutal.”

The first airstrikes on the three neighborhoods hit al-Qaboun on February 2, killing two civilians, reported the Syrian Network for Human Rights last month.

“With the first strike on al-Qaboun, the flow of supplies into the East Ghouta dropped off, and some items disappeared completely,” says Muhammad Abdelrahman, a grocery store owner in East Ghouta.

No further attacks followed until February 17, when the government launched dozens of rockets and bombed the neighborhood by air. A day later, pro-regime al-Masdar News announced a “large military operation” on the three neighborhoods to “expel the terrorists.”

Military analyst and former brigadier general in the Syrian army, Ali Maqsoud, told Russia Today from Damascus on February 21 that the offensive on the three neighborhoods came after rebels “began to conduct business via the tunnels connecting al-Qaboun and East Ghouta.”

“For that reason,” Maqsoud continued, “this operation comes to remove the terrorists from the outskirts of Damascus.”

Siege economy

The network of tunnels that connect East Ghouta with al-Qaboun and Barzeh is not a secret yet remains a sensitive topic among residents and rebel factions. Many sources declined to comment on the tunnel trade, with one local council member in East Ghouta telling Syria Direct that he was warned by the ruling rebel faction, Jaish al-Islam, not to discuss the topic with journalists.

Major tunneling operations began in 2014, when the unofficial truce in Barzeh, and later in al-Qaboun and Tishreen, took effect. The neighborhoods remained under rebel control despite the cessation of hostilities, and their close proximity to besieged East Ghouta made them an ideal location for goods to be transferred into the area.

Estimates of what exactly enters East Ghouta through the smuggling tunnels vary. Money changer Muhammad Ratib says that half of all goods sold in East Ghouta come from the tunnels. Rebel officials, however, have given estimates as low as 10 percent.

Though the regime limits the supplies that can pass through the al-Wafideen crossing—fuel, for example, are forbidden—they have not shut down the operation which has kept rebels in East Ghouta fed and the pockets of regime officials lined with money.

But if the al-Wafideen crossing was closed and the smuggling tunnels fell to the regime, strategic reserves of food and basic necessities could last “four to five months”, explains the Barzeh local council member.

‘Tightening the noose’

Opportunistic shop owners in East Ghouta are capitalizing on residents’ fears, raising prices to meet the increased demand. In some cases, local businessmen are monopolizing certain goods and closing their doors—waiting to reopen after future military escalation raises prices yet further.

The last major siege on East Ghouta came in 2014, when the rebel stronghold was totally encircled and the regime blocked humanitarian aid and even basic supplies from entering.

“I don’t want to try my luck,” says Khaled, a resident of Douma city in East Ghouta. “It’s an unpredictable situation and buying now when prices are high is still better than buying later when prices multiply even more.”

Losing Barzeh, al-Qaboun and Tishreen “would tighten the noose around East Ghouta’s neck,” the head of a local humanitarian aid organization in the rebel-held enclave tells Syria Direct.

“In the end, the regime wants to retake the area by any means possible,” he says. “Killings, airstrikes, artillery, chemical attacks, starvation—anything.”

“We saw what happened to Aleppo.”

Original reporting for Syrian Voice by Abdelhaq Hammam.

Justin Clark, Reporter/Translator

Justin Clark studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Amman. He works as a translator and reporter for the Syrian Voice.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.