AMMAN: Residents of formerly opposition-held areas of Syria are paying smugglers thousands of dollars to transport them to the country’s last rebel stronghold, as “reconciliation” areas retaken by the Syrian government last year are mired in instability and security threats.
Syrians who have been smuggled to the rebel-held areas of Idlib and Hama provinces in recent months, including former activists and residents, tell Syria Direct that smuggling networks once used as escape routes for fighters and civilians fleeing sieges now cater to Syrians living under the messy post-reconciliation realities that followed their return to government control.
In many cases, activists and analysts say, corrupt officials at different levels of Syria’s security apparatus help facilitate irregular journeys across the country.
Known in Arabic as teswiyeh, reconciliation was a process designed to reincorporate formerly opposition-held communities back under the Syrian state’s control. However, those same communities have seen arrests as well as tit-for-tat violence between security branches and reconciled former rebels.
In the formerly rebel-held span of traditionally working-class villages bordering Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in South Damascus, residents are paying thousands of dollars to head northward.
The area had been under siege by pro-government forces since 2013.
The Syrian government and its allies launched a “zero-hour” offensive on Islamic State (IS) militants in Yarmouk and the neighboring district of Hajar al-Aswad in April last year, imposing a forcible evacuation and reconciliation deal on three nearby rebel-held villages—Yalda, Babila and Beit Sahem—around the same time.
At least nine thousand people boarded the Syrian government’s evacuation buses to the northwest. But tens of thousands remained, opting instead to reconcile with authorities.
Like many areas of the capital once under the opposition’s control, South Damascus has gone quiet since the government moved back in.
Young men face military conscription and resurgent Syrian authorities have begun to assert themselves over the local community once again. Earlier this week, reports emerged that a security branch had detained several Palestinian aid workers from South Damascus.
Just how many people are now making irregular journeys out of South Damascus remains unknown—but the movements have attracted the attention of local media outlets and activists displaced to northwestern Syria last year.
“Even now, people are still leaving,” Hamada Hameed, a Palestinian activist originally from Yarmouk camp, who was displaced north on evacuation buses last year, tells Syria Direct. “Most of those arriving pay somewhere between $1,800 and $2,200 to get from South Damascus to the north…because they have security issues from the regime’s side.”
Ahmad,* from South Damascus, chose a smuggling route rather than living with the threat of arrest. He felt that his previous political activity had put him at risk.
“I was wanted for arrest by the security branches,” he says. “Staying would have been a form of suicide.”
Ahmad headed north earlier this year, paying smugglers to guide him through the farmlands south of the capital.
So did Abu Muhammad, a Syrian originally from a working-class neighborhood in South Damascus, who says he paid over $1,600 dollars to head to Idlib.
The trip took days to organize.
“We bargained over the phone for several days until the final amount, around $1,650, was agreed on,” he says. “The smuggler only asked for my age, and promised that a car would take me from Damascus directly to Idlib.”
According to Abu Muhammad, however, the journey was far more complicated than that.
His group, about a dozen in number, spent days being transferred from place to place, house to house—usually at night—as they made their way towards the frontlines separating government- and rebel-held territory in Hama province. The last stretch of the journey included a terrifying walk in the pitch-black towards the frontlines.
“The fear on our faces was clear to everyone who transported us,” he says.
A friend in Palestine Branch
Syria Direct found in February last year that South Damascus residents and fighters—including members of IS—had paid smugglers large sums of money to transport them out of the besieged pocket towards Turkey.
For residents able to pay the fee, the irregular route was a chance to escape years of siege and IS control in South Damascus. For IS fighters, the smuggling route presented a chance to pass themselves off as civilians and melt into rebel areas or even make their way to Turkey.
According to Yarmouk resident Muhammad Abdelrahim, speaking to Syria Direct last year after paying smugglers $5,300 to eventually reach Turkey, “I got out because there’s no hope of life returning to the camp.”
And yet cross-border smuggling between different areas of control has taken place for several years in South Damascus, sometimes with the oversight or even active involvement of authorities inside Syria’s sprawling network of intelligence agencies.
Palestine Branch, a section of military intelligence known officially as Branch 235, is alleged to have disappeared and tortured to death thousands of Palestinian refugees and Syrian citizens since the beginning of the conflict.
It also runs the Sidi-Meqdad checkpoint in Babila, the only crossing that linked government-held Damascus with Yalda, Babila and Beit Sahem before last year’s evacuations.
According to two activists familiar with the matter, senior Palestine Branch officers were paid thousands of dollars in bribe money to help facilitate the exit via Sidi-Meqdad of around 20 Palestinian activists from South Damascus to northwestern Syria in April 2015.
One of the officers, who was killed later in the conflict, had a reputation for siege trading—purportedly profiting from the almost total encirclement of the roughly 20-kilometer area, imposed by pro-government forces around Yarmouk and nearby rebel-held villages.
For the besieged, smuggling routes were a lifeline.
But for activists, that route meant dealing with authorities who likely wanted them dead, paying thousands of dollars to cross into government-held Damascus and, from there, the north. Even so, the alternative was worse.
As IS fighters stormed Hajar al-Aswad and Yarmouk camp in April 2015, the hardline Islamist group conducted a campaign of targeted assassinations against civil society networks inside the camp.
Among them was relief worker Firas al-Naji, who was shaving in front of the bathroom mirror when masked men entered his home and shot him in the head.
That same month, human rights defender Abdullah al-Khateeb narrowly escaped a similar fate when IS fighters turned up at his home.
In the subsequent weeks and months, activists communicated with representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Damascus, Palestine Branch and government-affiliated figures in the Palestinian community to facilitate their exit towards rebel-held areas of the northwest.
Then, one night in October 2015, a group of 20 crossed through Sidi-Meqdad into government-held Damascus. They were kept overnight in safehouses, before being bussed hundreds of kilometers northwards to a checkpoint marking the beginning of the rebel-held northwest.
Palestine Branch officers purportedly kept their side of the deal, and all activists in the group safely reached opposition territory further north—apart from one.
Photographer and activist Niraz Saied disappeared and, three years later, was announced dead. He had been tortured to death.
And while the route used by activists in 2015 was something of a one-off, smugglers were providing a way out for besieged residents since the beginning of the siege in 2013.
According to one activist, who was inside South Damascus until last year’s official evacuations north, smuggling was “happening all the time.” The route was so common, he calls it the “bus route.”
“A lot of people left this way.”
Smuggling a part of Syria’s war economy ‘since forever’
According to activists in northwestern Syria and analysts, similar informal networks continued to operate across the country after areas transitioned from opposition to government control—with networks often comprising everyone from security officials and armed groups to smugglers and government-affiliated middlemen.
“It’s a network,” says Palestinian activist Hameed. “A network like the one the regime was operating when we were besieged [in South Damascus].”
Hameed describes a nexus of smugglers communicating “with contacts within the state, from the military.”
Many of these networks can be traced back to the years of siege, after the Syrian government and its allies surrounded and besieged pockets of the country that included millions of rebel fighters and civilians inside them.
Sieges were lucrative—for some. Networks formed around them to facilitate the movement of people and goods. They have, in turn, produced a new generation of government-affiliated business figures who grew incredibly rich and powerful off the siege economy. Some are now poised to become prominent figures in Syria’s looming reconstruction.
According to Aron Lund, Syria analyst with the Century Foundation, smuggling networks are reflective of an age-old black market economy in Syria that has expanded with the post-2011 conflict.
“It’s very different from route to route but…smuggling has been a feature of the Syrian economy since forever, even before the war,” Lund tells Syria Direct, describing how the conflict only “accelerated” the work of informal smuggling networks that often involved officials within Syria’s security apparatus.
“These officials are extremely powerful, literally making decisions on life and death, but they are not paid very well.”
“So, what they’ve been doing is taking kickbacks, and they’ve been preying on people—before the war, but especially during it—as the economic crisis accelerated and their influence accelerated as well.”
But ongoing instability in areas retaken by the Syrian government last year is also driving a need for smuggling among communities around the country.
Daraa, in southwestern Syria, has seen widespread instability since rebel groups capitulated last summer.
While thousands boarded evacuation buses towards Idlib province following the end of the military offensive in July, the realities of reconciliation have since hung heavy over the region. Promises of security have, for many, remained illusory.
Guarantees proffered in Russian-brokered reconciliations have not been kept, and discontent is simmering. A wave of assassinations and disappearances targeting former rebel commanders and opposition-affiliated figures, as well as government-linked individuals, has led some to suggest that the southwest is at risk of instability for a long time to come.
Rather than living with the threat of arrest or conscription, media activist Abu Ammar—originally from the Daraa countryside—hired smugglers to head north late last year.
“About two months after the last [evacuation] convoy, I was able to get out with the help of smugglers who had relations to officers and shabeeha,” Abu Ammar tells Syria Direct, using a word in Syrian Arabic commonly used to describe pro-government militiamen.
“[They] found us a way to the north without military or security checkpoints.”
The whole trip from southern Syria to Turkey cost him around $2,500.
Abu Ammar says he felt shortchanged by reconciliation, lied to.
“One of the most important clauses in the reconciliation agreement stated that the army wouldn’t enter the area,” he says, citing “false promises of security” that were not kept.
“But the regime has started targeting people seen as close to the revolution through kidnapping and assassasination, [keeping] lists of names.”
While the messy realities of reconciliation complicate life in former opposition-held areas of Syria, analyst Lund expects smuggling to continue.
“I don’t necessarily think this will be something that ends up on Bashar’s desk until it’s a problem—until you start seeing rebel groups re-forming or serious disturbances,” he suggests.
“You can crack down on it, but it won’t disappear completely. This has become so fundamental to how the Syrian economy works.”
*All names of Syrians who were smuggled to the northwest have been withheld to protect their identities.