AMMAN— Since last April, the Russian-backed-Syrian government forces and allied militia have launched a military offensive against the last opposition strongholds in northwest Syria, which necessitated immense amounts of fuel as the country suffers from a severe shortage.

Last winter, Syrian cities and towns were almost paralyzed by a crisis of fuel shortage as a result of what some experts believed was caused by international sanctions imposed on Damascus.

It is known that the Syrian government uses multiple sources of oil supply to escape international sanctions, including regional and international sources, such as the Iranian, Iraqi and Russian oil. However, the easiest and least expensive source is the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) controlled territories in eastern Syria, previously controlled by the Islamic State (IS).

“Al-Qatarji” the only constant east of the Euphrates

After a period of terror combined with grim living conditions in the eastern countryside of Deir e-Zor under IS, civilians were relieved by the defeat of the terrorist group earlier this year. Still, their economic reality has not improved, even though they live on Syria's largest oil and gas reserves.

Therefore, it may be vexatious for the residents of eastern Euphrates to highlight the smuggling of oil from their areas to government-controlled territories, without addressing the suffering of ordinary citizens.

Deir e-Zor province is divided into two different spheres of influence. While the land east of the Euphrates is under the control of SDF, the west bank of the river is controlled by the government forces and allied militias.

"You journalists, as well as nations, are all interested in oil smuggling, far from knowing that smuggling affects our livelihood," Abu Jihad, a 30-year-old resident of al-Shuhail village near the east bank, said.

He described how the Euphrates nights has changed since the smuggling began. Contrary to previous days, “the murmur of the water and insects that appear after dark can’t be heard now because of the noise of the engines pump oil from the SDF east bank to the government-controlled west bank,” he told Syria Direct. 

"Smugglers start their work at night, away from the eyes of the patrols and aviation of the international coalition [which was formed by US-led forces to defeat IS].” 

Oil, however, is only "one of the most basic materials smuggled into regime areas. Wheat and barley are being smuggled as well, which affects the region's economy," he added. 

According to Abu Jihad, the price of a liter of diesel in east Euphrates has almost tripled, from SP 50 to 140,  because of smuggling. As for the kerosene, the price rose from SP 60 to 200 per liter. "Traders' monopoly of smuggling items to sell them at higher prices on the other bank, also contributed to this rise."

Residents have been protesting the worsening living conditions and deteriorating services, and the smuggling of essential items into government-controlled areas. As a result, SDF, in partnership with Deir e-Zor Military Council, launched campaigns to control the crossing posts to curb smuggling.

But the real goals of the campaigns seem to be contradictory. Abu Jihad went on to say: “The campaign is not for our benefit, but to curb the anger of the people and the monopoly of smuggling in favor of the influential in the SDF and the Deir e-Zor Military Council.”

The smuggling operations, he said, are carried out by tanks belonging to the Qatirji Company owned by the Syrian People's Assembly (the Parliament) member Hussam Qatirji, who was included in the US sanctions list last September; he is one of the entities that brokered the import of oil from IS-controlled areas.

“The tanks are coming out of the Omar and Tannak fields towards the Homs refinery, under the guard of the Deir e-Zor Military Council, which escorts the tanks until they cross the river,” according to Abu Jihad.

Syria Direct reached out to leaders of the SDF and Deir e-Zor Military Council for a response to these allegations but received no response from either side at the time of writing.

Samir Daham, director of the media office of Deir e-Zor Civil Council, said: "there is no documented information on smuggling, [It's] a thorny file, apart from being receding.” But he also added that “no doubt, there are still hidden smuggling places."

On the other hand, a security official in SDF revealed the existence of several points for smuggling oil to areas controlled by the Syrian government, including the region of Hawaij, Shuhail, Jdeidat al-Uqaydat, and Al-Dhiban but had no information about the quantity of the oil that was smuggled. 

"Tanks loaded with oil intended for smuggling pass through the checkpoints of the Asayish [Kurdish security forces], but they do not dare to intercept them, knowing that they are working for officials of Deir e-Zor Military Council cooperating with the Qatirji Company,” the security official told Syria Direct on condition of anonymity. 

After a period of public prosperity, the international coalition struck smuggling crossings and oil-loaded tanks from US-allied SDF territory. Although smuggling declined, it “did not stop” according to sources from the region. The international coalition targeted the main crossing point in Shuhail, which was run by armed tribal groups, meanwhile, SDF intensified surveillance along the riverbed, separating the observation posts only 500 meters apart.

"Smuggling operations have not stopped, but their tactics have changed," Abu Alaa al-Dairi,  a media activist, told Syria Direct.

As in all conflict zones, the “war trade” is booming, and smugglers are adapting to prevailing security conditions to continue their profitable trade. This happened with oil smugglers from the eastern countryside of Deir e-Zor.

Al-Dairi, who asked not to be named for security reasons, said there were three ways to smuggle oil:

  • The first method, considered an individual smuggling operation, is to transport oil in cans of 50-70 liters by tying ropes to a water boat in the river and using a device on the opposite bank to pull them.
  • The second and most common method is to transport oil through reservoirs mounted on ferries with powerful propulsion engines.
  • The third method is to lay pipelines under the river that are commonly used for irrigation, called pressure lines, four inches in diameter. 

According to al-Dairi, the narrowest point between the two banks of the river, ranging between 200 and 300 meters, is chosen to pull the tube through water boats and fixed by iron cables on both banks and a concrete pillar in the middle of the river. On the east bank, i.e SDF sphere of influence, pumps are usually installed for irrigation as well. It takes only about 15 minutes to pump a tank, or 100 barrels, using a pump known as "al-Batr."

The second and third methods are more productive for smugglers. "They are involved in using Qaterji and officials in the Deir e-Zor Military Council," said al-Dairi. 

Although the international coalition has targeted smuggling pipelines running under the Euphrates water several times, smugglers are quickly returning to the construction of new pipelines.

"The cost of a single line does not exceed $900," al-Dairi said.

 

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Nada Atieh