On a clear morning last month, Abu Ahmed, a truck driver from northern Aleppo province, set out for a routine trip to purchase diesel from a refinery in Islamic State (IS) territory northeast of Aleppo.
Abu Ahmed had completed this journey hundreds of times over the past year. He was familiar with the network of highways and country roads that he shares with trucks carrying fruits and vegetables to IS-held cities in the east.
This time, the career truck driver was taking a new route because of fighting between the Islamic State and Free Syrian Army (FSA) units north of Aleppo city.
Hundreds of trucks sat idle on both sides of the front lines, temporarily paralyzing northwest Syria’s war economy.
In order to maintain the flow of oil, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed coalition of Arabs and Kurds dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), opened a new route for Aleppo’s truck drivers through territory recently captured from FSA fighters to the south.
“I took the new SDF route through Ahras but I wasn’t familiar with the roads,” says Abu Ahmed.
“There had been battles in the area, and I knew it was probably full of mines and unexploded ordnance.”
The aftermath of a Russian airstrike on tanker trucks in northern Syria last October. Photo courtesy of Hasan Hameed.
After safely traversing most of the SDF-controlled territory, Abu Ahmed was approaching more familiar roads in IS-held Aleppo province when a mine exploded under his front-left tire.
“I was very careful, but you can’t see everything,” he said.
The bomb, likely a small, homemade explosive, mangled the tanker truck’s front axle. Abu Ahmed received treatment for severe burns.
After a few weeks of rest and waiting for his truck to be repaired, Abu Ahmed is now back on the road. Why?
“My truck is my only source of income,” he tells Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani.
Q: Explain the journey from rebel-held territory to IS territory.
The trip is very difficult.
First of all, there is the danger that one of the factions will suddenly block the road. When this happens, the driver can find himself stuck for a month or two living out of his truck on the side of the highway. Of course this waiting eats up a lot of funds because you have to buy food and water.
The most dangerous point in the journey is when you are stuck in the no-man’s land between IS- and opposition-controlled territory. The rebels only allow trucks to enter from dawn until dusk. The drivers have to sleep in their trucks if they arrive after sunset, and it’s very dangerous since this is the place where clashes often break out. A lot of truck drivers have lost their lives waiting for the checkpoints to open.
This is to say nothing of the other dangers. Landmines are dispersed along stretches of the road in different areas. The constantly shifting front lines expose drivers to a lot of dangers.
Once a driver has memorized a road, he’ll be forced to change his route and take a new road that he doesn’t know anything about. About two weeks ago I took a new route through SDF territory and ran over a mine. I was injured but survived.
Then there are the airstrikes. Coalition, regime and Russian warplanes all target fuel trucks.
I witnessed one airstrike: Russian jets targeted a convoy of fuel trucks passing through Ahras in north Aleppo when the area was still controlled by the Free Syrian Army. The strikes destroyed about 30 trucks and killed several drivers, including a friend of mine.
Truck drivers depart Idlib’s Darat Azza for IS-controlled Aleppo last month. Photo courtesy of Daretazza Media Center.
Q: Why do you continue to work as a truck driver given these dangers?
My truck is my only source of income. This is true for many truck drivers. Quite often the income from driving supports an entire family. Since the revolution began, more people have become truck drivers because they lost their previous jobs.
Secondly, society relies on truck drivers. We transport everything from fruit and vegetables to Islamic State-produced oil. The fuel trucks are particularly important because diesel is the lifeline for many communities; they use it to run household generators, bakeries and hospitals. Without diesel, many aspects of daily life would be paralyzed.
Q: Does IS impose any rules on truck drivers that enter its territory?
In general, IS doesn’t bother the drivers. Of course, they expect you to follow Islamic law. You have to grow your beard out, and smoking is not allowed. Your beard doesn’t have to be long though, one centimeter is fine. The fighters will confiscate and destroy your cigarettes if they find them because they consider them to be forbidden. If the driver is from non-IS territory, then it ends there. But if the driver is from areas under IS control, then they will force you to attend a one-week course on Islamic law.
IS also imposes the zakat [tax] on all drivers. The zakat owed is proportional to the driver’s profits.
Q: Describe the process of buying fuel from Islamic State lands.
Overall, the process of entering IS territory is very easy. There is only a short inspection at the first checkpoint.
Drivers are able to purchase fuel in the marketplace or directly from the refineries. Fuel is not always available there. You can always buy from the refineries, except when there are clashes to the east that prevent unprocessed oil from reaching them.
IS sets the price of the unprocessed oil that comes from the east in dollars. There are trucks that go all the way to the oil fields out east and purchase the unprocessed oil directly from the wells. They wait up to 40 days at the wells. But after the drivers have purchased the unprocessed fuel, they are free to sell it on the black market at whatever price they like.
Q: Are you afraid to enter IS territory?
All drivers are scared of going to IS territory because we could be targeted by airstrikes at any moment. We know we are taking our lives into our own hands, but we do what we do so we can feed our families.