AMMAN: Fuel trucks originating in Islamic State territory are once again driving into rebel-held northern Syria on Thursday, two days after civilian authorities negotiated with Kurdish-led SDF forces in northwest Aleppo province to open a new diesel trade route, ending a nearly month-long fuel crisis.
The deal leaves northwest Aleppo’s Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—multi-ethnic forces primarily made up of Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and based in the YPG-held canton of Afrin—in control of the flow of oil from IS territories to the east. This new route bypasses FSA and Islamist rebels in the neighboring Azaz pocket.
Before the fuel crisis and Tuesday’s deal, diesel deliveries originating in IS-controlled al-Bab travelled through rebel-held Azaz, into Kurdish Afrin, then down into rebel Idlib, Aleppo and Hama. Now, oil will pass directly from IS territories into those controlled by the SDF and from there down into the rest of rebel-held northern Syria.
In late April, SDF forces in northwest Aleppo province reportedly began stopping fuel trucks carrying diesel refined in Islamic State (IS) territory in Syria’s east from traveling through the Kurdish-held canton of Afrin on their way to markets in rebel-held Idlib province.
Last week, a PYD spokesman in Afrin told Syria Direct that the trucks had been stopped in response to “citizens’ complaints” about high fuel costs “despite all the fuel trucks passing through the canton.” The YPG is the military wing of the PYD. An oil truck driver whose cargo was stopped in Afrin confirmed the account to Syria Direct last week, while an SDF spokesman said “we can’t send large quantities of fuel into a conflict zone.”
However, speaking to Syria Direct on Wednesday, a member of the Syrian Democratic Council—the political wing of the SDF—denied having stopped the trucks, accusing rebels in the Azaz pocket of territory immediately east of Afrin of doing so.
“The [non-SDF] factions had closed the [fuel] corridor through Azaz to put pressure on Afrin,” Ahmad al-Aaraj told Syria Direct on Wednesday.
Whatever the cause, hundreds of tankers sat idle in the canton for weeks, paralyzing northern Syria’s war economy, in which Islamic State diesel from eastern Aleppo passes through Kurdish-held territories before traveling on to rebel-held Idlib, Aleppo and Hama. In exchange for the diesel, food from Idlib farms travels east into IS-held lands.
‘The road is calm’
The newly opened corridor originates in Ahras, a town on the far eastern edge of SDF-held Aleppo adjacent to IS territory.
The Ahras route opened on Tuesday and fuel trucks started driving after “civilian bodies in Idlib, Hama and Aleppo reached an agreement with the Self-Administration in Afrin Canton and northern Aleppo,” to open a new “humanitarian corridor,” a member of the SDF’s Jaish al-Thuwwar, announced in a video posted online Tuesday.
One day after the new route was opened, the price of mazot diesel in the Idlib countryside, which had doubled over the course of the fuel crisis, fell on Wednesday, Omar Haj Qadour, a citizen journalist in the province told Syria Direct.
“The road is calm, vehicles are moving from Ahras to Afrin to Darat Azza and flowing in a natural way,” Mohammed Abu Muhi a-Din, a citizen journalist in northern Aleppo’s Darat Azza, the first stop for fuel leaving Afrin, told Syria Direct on Wednesday.
While the fuel trade has returned, some residents of northern Syria are wary of the new arrangement because it leaves the SDF in control of the flow of oil to neighboring territories ruled by rebel groups with whom they share a mutual distrust.
“It’s not in the SDF’s interest to cut the road because they’re benefitting financially,” journalist Muhi a-Din told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “But the corridor is something to hold over the opposition areas that could be utilized at any time.”
“After opening the new road from Ahras, we’re in Afrin’s pocket.”