Rebel-held Daraa loses lifeline after regime offensive cuts flow of smuggled Islamic State oil

AMMAN: A smuggling route that is the source of fuel to the rebel-held half of Daraa province remains cut off for a second week on Thursday after regime forces seized territory cutting through the heart of the route—leaving hundreds of thousands of residents with no fuel supply. 

Syrians living under opposition control in Daraa province once relied on a complex fuel-smuggling route originating in Islamic State territory in Deir e-Zor, Raqqa and Hasakah provinces, more than 500 kilometers from rural Daraa’s eggplant and tomato fields.

The Islamic State oil was transported downward through Syria’s remote eastern desert, passing through the hands of Bedouin smugglers and checkpoint officers both in rebel- and regime-held territory before finally reaching Daraa province, which borders Jordan.

Nobody seemed to mind its origins—Daeshi mazot, named for the Islamic State’s Arabic acronym, was the cheapest fuel on the market. One liter of the fuel sold at just 50 cents per liter, Abu Hussein, a farmer in rural Daraa told Syria Direct. He used the fuel to power his farm’s irrigation network.

Smuggled Daeshi mazot fuels hospitals, industrial bread ovens and farm equipment in the dozens of towns and villages that dot rural Daraa province.

One hospital in the western Daraa town of Jassem, for example, requires some 4,500 liters of mazot per month just to power its electricity generators, Eyhab Hikmat, the hospital’s director, told Syria Direct on Thursday. Without it, “we can’t provide any services,” he said.   

Trucks carry gas canisters in Daraa on August 13. Photo courtesy of Nabaa Media Foundation.

Two weeks ago, regime forces expelled rebel Free Syrian Army militias from a stretch of roughly 30 kilometers of territory in southern Suwayda province along the Syrian-Jordanian border. The push sent rebel fighters, as well as dozens of nearby civilians, fleeing deeper into Syria’s eastern desert for safety.

Regime-held southern Suwayda province—otherwise a remote desert backwater to Daraa’s east—was the heart of the mazot smuggling route.

Bedouin smugglers emerged from the eastern Syrian desert with large oil tankers, arriving at villages and gas stations in Suwayda with hundreds of barrels of the Daeshi mazot. There, they loaded barrels into trucks to be driven west.

The journey west, Suwayda-based journalist Nour Radhwan told Syria Direct, included paying bribes at regime checkpoints along the roads, before passing the barrels along once again to traders awaiting them in Daraa province’s easternmost reaches. Each truck, he said, “carried a load of between 20 and 25 barrels.”

Spokesmen from two rebel militias in eastern Syria confirmed to Syria Direct the existence of Daeshi mazot smuggling routes through their territory and into Suwayda province.

But when rebels withdrew from southern Suwayda amid regime advances earlier this month, “it became difficult to smuggle the fuel,” Abu Ahmad, a mazot smuggler from Daraa province told Syria Direct. Eastern Suwayda villages that once served as rendezvous points along the smuggling route are now too dangerous to access, located within regime territory and close to ongoing battles between regime and rebel forces.

The fighting is linked to a Syrian regime push launched earlier this month to seize control of opposition-held territory on Suwayda’s southeastern border region, near a former border point with Jordan.  

Since then, the flow of cheap Islamic State mazot to Daraa has all but stopped.

‘They lost everything’

The impact of the cutoff was immediate, farmers and local officials in Daraa province told Syria Direct. Among those suffering the biggest losses, sources said, were Daraa’s farmers, who relied on cheap mazot to run irrigation systems that water their crops.

The remaining supply of Daeshi mazot is scarce, farmers on the ground told Syria Direct, and quickly running dry—driving up prices for working-class farmers who simply cannot afford it.

The result is fields of tomatoes, eggplant and other produce left abandoned on the ground, unwatered for days.

A farm in rural Daraa on August 10. Photo courtesy of Nabaa Media Foundation.

Abu Nizar a-Samir, a farmer from the western Daraa town of Inkhil, now can only water his crops every nine days, “because of the high price of mazot” used to fuel his irrigation system, he said. 

Another rural Daraa farmer, Abu Hussein, estimates his community lost more than 22,000 square meters of eggplant crops since losing supplies of Daeshi mazot.

“It is difficult for us to use any of the farm equipment,” he told Syria Direct. “If this situation doesn’t change, we will completely lose all of our crops.”

The total loss to Daraa farmers since the cutoff earlier this month is around SP15 billion—roughly $29 million in damage to crops, the opposition-affiliated head of Daraa’s agricultural office told Syria Direct.

Agrarian Daraa province has already suffered hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to crops since the start of the war, according to a 2017 report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

In Abu Nizar a-Samir’s hometown of Inkhil, 43 kilometers north of the provincial capital, which lies in the south near the Jordan border, “the loss to farmers is estimated at about SP450 million,” approximately $873,000, Mohammad al-Iqraa, the director of the town’s agricultural office told Syria Direct.

A-Samir estimates more than 60 percent of his crops this season are lost. “But some of my relatives and friends left their crops behind completely, with no compensation to show for it,” he added.

“They lost everything.”

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.