AMMAN — Almost all military and political developments in Syria can be felt in Idlib, even if they are not taking place within the borders of the Syrian northwestern province. The most recent example of such reverberations is the current fuel crisis in Idlib as a result of the Turkish-led “Operation Peace Spring” in northeast Syria. 

Although Syrian opposition armed groups operating in Idlib are not part of the Syrian National Army (SNA), which constitutes the backbone of the Turkish military operation that began on October 9, the effects of “Operation Peace Spring” have already materialized in the province, especially in terms of fuel provisions.

Idlib and the northern Aleppo countryside are experiencing severe shortages of refined diesel. Where available, prices have increased by 50%. This also applies to other petroleum products, whose prices have witnessed an unprecedented increase, according to several sources who spoke to Syria Direct

One of the main reasons behind the ongoing crisis is the interruption of fuel provisions from eastern Syria. Following the launch of “Operation Peace Spring,” the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) “cut supply lines of crude oil through the al-Humran [Umm al-Julud] crossing, which liberated areas [under the control of Syrian opposition factions] depend on,” the Jarablus crossing’s head of security, Captain Anas Yahya, told Syria Direct

These actions have resulted in “price increases in crude oil from 50,000 Syrian liras per barrel [$66.67] before ‘Operation Peace Spring’ to 145,000 Syrian liras [$193.33], where available,” noted Ahmad al-Idlibi, a worker at a gas station in the Idlib countryside. This means that “the price of locally refined diesel will  approach the price of imported [refined diesel] from Turkey, which reached 118,000 Syrian liras per barrel [$157.33],” based on Sunday’s exchange rate of 750 SYP to the dollar according to the website, Syrian Pound Today. “The price of a domestic gas cylinder also rose from 6,500 Syrian lira [$8.67] to 7,200 Syrian liras [$9.60],” al-Idlib said.

Despite fuel imports from Turkey, most of the fuel to Idlib province (over 70% according to some sources) comes from areas in northeastern Syria under the control of the SDF, which are then transported through areas under the control of the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition in the northern Aleppo countryside. After arriving, “it is refined and sorted by residents of the area, using local tools in primitive burners, for the extraction of refined diesel and gasoline,” explained Captain Yahya. He pointed out that “the refining process is active in the town of Tarhine in Aleppo countryside, and Maarat Naasan in the countryside of Idlib."

The causes of the recent fuel crisis are nothing new, however. “Operation Olive Branch,” which was launched in January 2018 by Turkey with the support of Syrian opposition factions against the SDF in Afrin, also led to a similar fuel crisis. Following the military operation, the SDF blocked the main road of Afrin, which was a transit route for the arrival of hydrocarbons in opposition areas in northern Syria.

A war against “popular support”

“Price increases in fuel were preceded by price increases in food,” due to the depreciation of the Syrian pound (liar), explained the 35-year-old Muhammad al-Asa’ad from Jarablus in northern Aleppo countryside.

Al-Asa’ad, who earns approximately $80 a month, is compelled to “ration more of my spending, even though my family and I are austere in terms of food and clothing.” While for the heating he has “to use less expensive alternatives [to petroleum products], despite the great health damage they cause.”

Also, the SNA closed the al-Humran crossing from its side after it “seized several trucks that were booby-trapped by the SDF, and prevented the entry of trucks carrying fuel [to opposition areas], making the trucks unload their cargo at the Qarqozat bridge on the Euphrates river,” Yahya explained. He said that the objective of the SDF was to “weaken popular support for the SNA by depriving them of this basic material [fuel].”

He added that the “crossings between east and west Euphrates are closed after every military operation launched by the SNA against the SDF, and so the problem of importing oil from the east Euphrates to our area resurfaces.”

Beyond ‘Operation Peace Spring’

Even though the crossings between Turkey and opposition-controlled areas in northwest Syria were not affected by “Operation Peace Spring,” the region nonetheless witnessed an “exorbitant increase in the price of Turkish fuel. The price of one liter reached 565 Syrian liras [$0.75], whereas it used to cost 260 liras [$0.35],” Muhammad Badran, a trader, told Syria Direct

Aside from shortages resulting from “Operation Peace Spring,” Badran, who transports fuel from Turkey to Jarablus, blamed the price increases of Turkish fuel imports on “the drop in the value of the Syrian lira against the dollar.” 

“The price of Turkish fuel is fixed; it is 4.6 Turkish liras [$0.80] for one liter, but the price of the [Syrian] lira continues to fall.”

Badran added that the imports of fuel products from Turkey to Idlib province are monopolized by one company, Watad Petroleum. It is linked to Hayaat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and works as an exclusive importer of oil derivatives from Turkey, entering Syria through the Bab al-Hawa crossing. 

In addition to Watad Petroleum, through which HTS controls fuel prices, traders active in this sector “monopolize the fuel [trade] and sell it at twice the price set by the company, without market regulation,” another source in Idlib told Syria Direct

Al-Idlibi confirmed this, saying that “the prices published by Watad on their Facebook page are not accurate, and they do not correspond to the prices posted at the [gas] stations.”

Syria Direct contacted the company’s media office for a comment but received no response.

“Turkish diesel is not suitable for poor and middle-classes of the general public because of its high prices, [but] it will reflect on the price of electricity, water, bread and transportation expenses,” al-Asa’ad said.

However, the increase in fuel prices has increased demand for other forms of energy, such as coal and firewood, which is also raising their prices. “The price of one ton of dry firewood reached 80,000 Syrian liras [$106.67], whereas it used to be 50,000 Syrian liras [$66.67],” Murshid al-Ahmad, a trader of firewood in Sarmada, told Syria Direct.

Adapting to unhealthy substitutes

Fatima Younis, a 35-years-old woman living in one of the squatter camps in the town of Kafr Lusin in Idlib’s northern countryside, began preparing for winter by buying “clothes and worn-out shoes to use [burn] in heating,” she told Syria Direct.

“The price of a bag of used clothes, weighing 5kg, is around 500 liras [$0.67]. The price of a bag of worn-out shoes is about 1000 liras [almost $1.33].” If people cannot afford these, they might have to turn to “burning tires or whatever is on the agricultural lands around them, ” she added.

Describing the conditions of the camp on a cold winter day, Younis said: “you can see black clouds in the skies from the fumes emitted by burning clothes and tires.” She added that “every winter, the people of the camp do not know the taste of warmth and they do not use diesel even before the [price] increases because we cannot buy it.” 

Even locally refined diesel, which is in short supply now, is “of poor quality and smells bad,” explained Ahmad al-Rahal, from the city of Idlib. Although it is proportional to the purchasing power of civilians, “the [price] increase has prevented me from installing the heater. At these prices, the appropriate substitute is firewood.”

Al-Rahal concluded by wondering, “why are we always victims of international agreements, which are reflected in our living conditions?”  

The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Rohan Advani.