AMMAN: Kurdish officials in northwest Aleppo province are blocking hundreds of fuel trucks from passing through their territory toward rebel-held areas in Idlib, south Aleppo, and Hama provinces, precipitating a fuel crisis and exacerbating tensions between northern Syria’s Kurdish and Sunni Arab rebels.
Late last month, Kurdish forces from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) began stopping tanker trucks carrying diesel refined in Islamic State (IS) territory in Syria’s east traveling to markets in rebel-held Idlib province, a truck driver who has driven the route for almost a year told Syria Direct on Wednesday.
Since the YPG started barring the trucks’ passage, the price of mazot [a cheap form of diesel] has doubled in rebel-held areas of northwest Syria, while “hundreds of fuel trucks” remain parked inside Afrin canton, waiting to be permitted passage to Idlib, said Abu Ahmed, the truck driver who used a pseudonym.
The YPG has not commented publicly on the decision to prevent the fuel trucks from continuing to Idlib province, but a Democratic Union Party (PYD) spokesman told Syria Direct on Wednesday that the new policy is a response to “citizens’ complaints.” The YPG is the PYD’s military wing.
“These fuel trucks come and pass through the area and on to Idlib without delivering any fuel for use by the people of Afrin,” said the spokesman, who is based in the Kurdish-controlled canton and requested anonymity.
“The people of Afrin were asking us why the price of fuel is so high here despite all the fuel trucks passing through the canton,” he added.
The trucks parked in Afrin represent the reality of north Syria’s war economy, whereby IS allows diesel to flow to fuel-poor, rebel-held territories in the west in exchange for food from Idlib farms travelling east.
Starting in June of 2015, the food-for diesel trade routes ran from the eastern Aleppo city of al-Bab, where merchants load their tanker trucks with diesel produced and refined by IS, through a narrow strip of rebel-held territory between Aleppo city and the encircled regime towns of Nubl and Zahraa in Aleppo.
But this past February, regime forces and allied militias severed the corridor between Aleppo city and Nubl and Zahraa in a series of lighting advances, Syria Direct reported at the time.
In order to keep the flow of diesel running to Idlib province, truck drivers began taking a detour through the Kurdish-majority territory of Afrin, positioned in northwest Aleppo province.
One of three administrative cantons referred to by Kurds as Rojava, Afrin is ruled by a joint administration dominated by the PYD (ideologically aligned with Abdullah Ocalan’s PKK party in Turkey), and protected by the YPG.
Despite tensions with many of the Islamist and Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels that rely on the food-for-diesel trade routes, the PYD benefited from the new arrangement by taxing each passing truck SP1,000 per barrel of diesel in its cargo, Abu Ahmed, the truck driver, told Syria Direct. [Ed.: The Syrian currency is fluctuating widely not only in Damascus but across the country. The black-market rate is roughly SP610 to $1.]
Since late last month when the YPG began blocking the trucks, “the price of a liter of mazot in rebel-held territories has gone from SP200 to SP400,” a journalist in the Idlib countryside told Syria Direct on Wednesday.
“We’ve been relying on stored fuel for the past month, but now we are down to a few days’ worth,” said Darat Azza Media Center correspondent Mohammed Abu Muhi a-Din.
Located 25km south of Afrin city, Darat Azza is the first transit stop inside rebel-held territories for the food-for-diesel truck drivers. Many of the drivers whose trucks are parked in Afrin, have come to Darat Azza while they wait for the road to open.
One such driver is Abu Ahmed, who spent two weeks in Afrin waiting for the road to open before abandoning his truck to walk on foot to Darat Azza.
“On the 12th day I was there, some merchants from Afrin came and bought the diesel from any truck drivers who would sell,” said Abu Ahmed.
“They were buying for rock-bottom prices: SP31,000 per barrel, but if you sold your diesel you could pass on to the al-Ghazawiya checkpoint and on to Darat Azza in Idlib,” he said, adding that he had originally purchased the diesel for SP40,000 per barrel.
Abu Ahmed said he chose not to sell his diesel and, therefore, his truck is still parked in Afrin.
“I left my truck with my assistant. Every day I call him to check on the situation but nothing has changed, the road is still closed,” he said.
While Abu Ahmed’s and others’ trucks sit in Afrin, Idlib residents are looking for ways to ration what stockpiles of fuel they have left.
“Sellers are giving priority to hospitals and bread ovens,” says Abu Muhi a-Din, the journalist.
“We have to ration what we have. When we run out we’ll be facing a real humanitarian catastrophe,” he says.
“We rely on diesel to run everything, including hospitals, bread ovens, generators for people’s homes and to extract water from wells.”