In early October, Jabhat a-Nusra opened its first smuggling tunnel running from the north Damascus neighborhoods of Barzeh and Qabon, where rebel brigades maintain ongoing truces with the regime, into opposition-controlled East Ghouta, due east of the capital.
Nusra’s tunnel was not the first, but is notable for another reason: The Al-Qaeda affiliate also smuggled in food, fuel and electronics, but undercut the competition. In other words, Nusra slashed prices on its black-market products in an effort to win the hearts and minds of residents of the east Damascus suburbs, who have been living under regime encirclement of their towns for more than three years.
It may have worked, says Abu Mohammad al-Ghoutani, a resident of East Ghouta.
Other rebel brigades constructed tunnels running from the areas they controlled at the edges of Ghouta under regime checkpoints to bring in flour, sugar and other basic goods as early as last March. These rebel brigades, because of their monopoly over the tunnels, kept prices artificially high, charging up to ten times more than the goods would cost outside of Ghouta.
The tactic seems to be working, he says. “It appears that Nusra’s goal is to reduce the suffering of the besieged residents, who had begun cursing the revolution and the rebels,” al-Shami tells Syria Direct’s Kholoud al-Shami.
“The people see Nusra's initiative as a positive step and the masses in Ghouta are sympathizing with them.”
Q: What is Nusra’s goal in decreasing the market prices?
It appears that Nusra’s goal is to reduce the suffering of the besieged residents, who had begun cursing the revolution and the rebels because of Feilaq a-Rahman and Fajar al-Umma keeping prices high. All factions want to build up their popular support, which is what Nusra is doing.
Q: How is Nusra getting goods into besieged Ghouta? And what are the goods?
They get the goods through tunnels linking Qaboun and Barzeh [a few kilometers to the north on the other side of the regime-imposed blockade] to East Ghouta. The regime knows about the tunnels, but it can’t do anything since there are truces in Barzeh and Qaboun, and the regime can’t break these truces because they are sensitive areas in Damascus.
The most important staples that have been affected by the price drop are fuels and basic food items—olive oil, sugar, bulgur, flour, salt, chickpeas. Nusra has promised the people it would lower the prices of other necessities when they are able to bring them in.
Q: How will these price changes affect people’s lives in Ghouta, especially during winter?
The reduction of market prices will have a major impact on city residents, especially as we are unable to harvest crops in the winter as we are in the summer. The cost of living also goes up during the winter because of wood and fuel for heating.
Q: How were people getting goods before Nusra began importing them?
Previously, the majority of basic living needs were not being met due to the military blockade. There was one crossing point for goods at the Wafadin camp (next to Douma) that would open occasionally, but only a limited number of goods passed through it and they were sold at very high prices. The price of a kilo of sugar, for example, could range anywhere from SP1,000 [$4.50] to SP3,000 [$13.50].
About eight months ago, Fajar al-Ummah began digging tunnels between Ghouta and Qaboun and Barzeh, areas that have truces with the regime, in order to bring in food, medicine, electronics and fuel. They sold these items on the market at very high prices, sometimes for 10 times their price outside Ghouta. Shortly afterwards, the rest of the rebel groupsbegan digging tunnels. Feilaq a-Rahman opened a tunnel, and similar to Fajar al-Ummah, profited from their operations until Jabhat a-Nusra opened their own tunnel a month ago.
Q: What has been the reaction towards Jabhat a-Nusra after the drop in prices?
Local residents have viewed the drastic drop in prices positively and stood in solidarity with Jabhat a-Nusra when Feilaq a-Rahman prevented them from selling gasoline at reduced prices when they were still sharing a tunnel. The masses in Ghouta are sympathizing with Nusra.
Q: What role, if any, has Jaish al-Islam played in the market prices in Ghouta?
Jaish al-Islam did not have a major role in the dramatic price increases, as they were primarily caused by the tunnels opened by Fajar al-Ummah and Feilaq a-Rahman. Four months ago there was an issue between Fajar al-Ummah and Jaish al-Islam, because the latter tried to force the former to reduce prices.