Secret Smuggling Tunnels at the Heart of Eastern Ghouta’s Economy
By Enab Baladi Investigative Journalism Unit/Syrian Independent Media Group
In the first week of May 2017 a money transfer office in Istanbul raised its rate for a monthly money transfer to Eastern Ghouta from 2.5 to 18 percent. The increase – on a monthly transfer for the correspondent of the news website Enab Baladi – was justified because the tunnels connecting Qaboun and Barzeh to Eastern Ghouta had been closed due to the advance of Assad’s forces.
The tunnels were back under the spotlight after Zahran Alloush, the former leader of Jaish al-Islam, left besieged Eastern Ghouta for Turkey in April 2015, and then returned to Ghouta in July of the same year. His visit to Turkey provoked speculation about the path he had taken at a time when all outlets from the opposition areas were closed by Assad’s forces.
The tunnels and how they function have been under intense scrutiny since they provide financial benefits for all sides in the conflict in Syria. They have enabled brokers and traders to control markets in the besieged areas.
The Syrian regime has been imposing a tight blockade on Eastern Ghouta, which is controlled by opposition factions. Recently, the factions also maintained three core neighborhoods inside the capital, Damascus: Barzeh, Qaboun and Tishreen.
The factions dug tunnels to connect Ghouta to the neighborhoods they controlled in Damascus. The tunnels were initially used to transport fighters and ammunition, but were later expanded to transport civilians and goods – and even to fit vehicles and trucks. They were managed directly by the factions’ leaders or by “civilian organizations” affiliated with the factions; but regardless of the controlling group’s affiliation, it imposed regulations and conditions on the transit traffic – and taxes or royalties on goods. The opening of the tunnels was a direct threat to the smuggling business that had been conducted by the regime’s forces via the Wafideen crossing point, and financed by well-connected business men such as Mohieddin Manfoush.
In mid-May 2017, Assad’s forces gained control over Qaboun and Barzeh, which dramatically affected the smuggling business operated through the tunnels, and caused the prices of goods in Eastern Ghouta to soar to record highs.
Following an agreement that led to the expulsion of opposition fighters to northern Syria, the military media of the Syrian regime published videos showing their control over a number of tunnels in Qaboun.
A video report on the tunnels that connect Qaboun to Ghouta
Over the course of six months, reporters interviewed many of the decision-makers directly involved in the movement taking place within the tunnels. They used more than one tunnel between Damascus and Ghouta and collected information on the distribution of the tunnels, their management mechanisms and regulations and the ways in which businessmen smuggle goods into Ghouta.
Although some sources considered the tunnels to be “classified military information,” others spoke of their experience either because they believed that people had the right to know who was responsible for destroying their livelihoods, or because they wanted to “expose” the factions that abused and exploited the civilians in the area.
Five Main Tunnels and a Road for Trucks
The first tunnel, dug in late 2013, connected Harasta to neighborhoods west of the highway, that are considered an extension of the Qaboun orchards. The tunnel was dug by the Fajr al-Umma faction, and was about 875 yards (800m) in length. It opened in summer 2014, and was used to transport fighters and weapons between the two areas, which were separated by a highway.
In January 2015, the Jaish al-Umma faction opened a tunnel parallel to the first, but after Jaish al-Umma was defeated by Jaish al-Islam the people behind the tunnel turned to the Fajr al-Umma faction, which was already in control of Harasta, where the tunnel is located.
Then, in May 2015, Failaq al-Rahman and al-Liwaa al-Awwal dug a tunnel called “Rahma” (Mercy), set aside for vehicles, and connecting Arbin, which was under the control of Failaq al-Rahman, with the areas controlled by al-Liwaa al-Awwal in Qaboun. The tunnel was approximately 3,060 yards (2,800m) in length, and large enough for Kia 2400 trucks.
In September 2015, Failaq al-Rahman strengthened its control over the tunnels with a new tunnel called “Nour” (Light). The 1,960-yard (1,800m) Nour tunnel, which was dug in cooperation with Jabhat al-Nusra in Qaboun, was for pedestrians and connected Arbin with Qaboun.
Jaish al-Islam secretly joined the tunnel operations in June 2015. The faction dug a 2-mile (3km) tunnel that begins in Qaboun and ends in two gates, one of which leads to Zamalka and the other to Arbin. Jaish al-Islam later expanded the tunnel to fit cars and trucks.
In addition to these long tunnels, there are unmanned underground passages used for secret military purposes. There also have been unsuccessful attempts to dig other tunnels. Ahrar al-Sham and Fatah al-Sham, for example, embarked on digging a tunnel to connect Qaboun and Ghouta, but the operations stopped five months laterdue to the tense situation in Qaboun.
This video shows the various tunnels and the dates they began their operations.
The ‘Cheese Prince,’ Free in a Besieged Kingdom
From a neighborhood in Misraba in Eastern Ghouta, the Syrian businessman Mohieddin Manfoush runs his business. His profits from dairy produce have won him the nickname “the Prince of Cheese.”
Manfoush is the owner of al-Marai al-Dimashqiya Company (Damascus Pastures), founded in 2003. Although al-Marai’s factories are located in Eastern Ghouta, its products are distributed and sold in Damascus and the country’s other provinces as well as in neighboring countries. In early May 2017, the company participated in Food Expo, an exhibition for the food and packaging industry at the Dama Rose Hotel in Damascus, and its stand was visited by Bishr Yazji, the minister of tourism in the Syrian government.
Due to his financial connections and popularity, Manfoush travels between Eastern Ghouta and Damascus whenever he wishes, without harassment from any of the parties in the area. (Everyone in Ghouta knows this; our correspondent received confirmation from people very close to Manfoush himself. Our reporter provided the name of his source and his relationship to Manfoush, but the source asked us not to publish his name in order to spare him problems or harassment.)
With the approval and cooperation of the regime’s forces, Manfoush brings into Eastern Ghouta an average of two food shipments per day. His shipments enter the area through the Wafideen (Arrivals) crossing point, which was named after the Wafideen camp in Douma. According to local small businessmen who spoke to Enab Baladi and asked not to be identified, by the time the goods enter Douma and reach the small business owners their prices have increased dramatically and are sometimes 20 times higher than elsewhere. This is because those bringing the goods in have to pay high bribes at the checkpoints. Officers at the checkpoints charge 200-300 Syrian pounds ($1–$1.40) for each kilogram of goods that passes through.
Enab Baladi attempted to reach Manfoush, but he refused to communicate with the media. He avoids anything that might make it possible to prove what he does; according to some sources, he does not even sign his own name on the bills and receipts he gives to small business owners in Ghouta. Enab Baladi was not able to secure any document or bill that bears his name.
Manfoush is not the only businessman who brings goods into Ghouta. Well-connected businessmen, faction leaders and Assad’s officers control the market and the movement of goods – and therefore people’s lives. However, none of them is as as well known and influences the market as much as Manfoush, after whom the main checkpoint at the city of al-Tal in Rif Dimashq was named.
In addition to bringing in military supplies, the main purpose of the tunnels was to break Manfoush’s and the regime officers’ monopoly on the market. This was why independent businessmen were allowed to bring their goods through the tunnels. However, the prices did not really fall. The reason behind that was something this report attempts to address.
Enab Baladi met with one of the directors of Rahma Foundation (Mercy Foundation), whose name, along with our other sources, has been withheld for their protection. The foundation is a front for Failaq al-Rahman and is in charge of Rahma tunnel. According to the manager, the tunnel, which was initially dug to break the monopoly on the market, did not help ease the suffering of the besieged people, because it was turned into profitable business for businessmen and faction leaders.
“Everyone finds in the tunnel the perfect opportunity to make money. Since the very first tunnel was completed, Fajr al-Umma, the faction that had dug the tunnel, took control of all incoming goods and sold them for extremely high prices. In 2014, for example, 1kg of sugar was sold for 60-70 Syrian pounds [around 30 cents] in Damascus, but Fajr al-Umma sold it for 3,500 Syrian pounds [more than $16] within Ghouta,” says the manager.
The director also pointed out that every month Fajr al-Umma gave away free food and a tank of propane for people in Harasta in attempt to strengthen its popularity in the area, while people in some areas in Ghouta were suffering from malnutrition.
At this point, Jaish al-Islam, Fatah al-Sham and Failaq al-Rahman interfered and put pressure on Fajr al-Umma to give them access to the tunnel. As a result, they – together with local councils, civil organizations and relief offices – gained access to the tunnel for 14 days every month, while Fajr al-Umma had access for the rest of the month.
The director explained that the faction charged 10 percent of anything that came into Ghouta through the tunnel, even when it was for medical or relief uses. If the medical office, for example, brought in 10 boxes, the faction would take one box, regardless of its content.
He also pointed out that the faction leaders were in full control of all movement through the tunnel, because, as they claimed, they had to protect their fighters. This was also revealed in a leaked video made public in May 2016, which documented a meeting between Zahran Alloush, the former commander of Jaish al-Islam, Abdul Nassir Shamir, the commander of Faylaq al-Islam, and Abu Khaled al-Zahta, the commander of Fajr al-Umma and the one in charge of the tunnel.
The leaked video, which was made public six months after the killing of Zahran Alloush, was short and did not cover the whole background of the dispute between the factions. However, it was enough to prove that the factions did not agree on a unified plan for movement through the only tunnel at that time, and that the leaders of the factions had full knowledge and control of what passed through it.
According to the director of the Rahma Foundation and a number of officials in local councils, Fajr al-Umma required civil institutions and local councils to sell food at a fixed price, determined by what the faction itself found suitable for the market. If their pricing scheme was not applied, the faction would refuse to let food through the tunnel.
The following table illustrates the prices in Ghouta in comparison to those in Damascus during that time. (In early 2014, the exchange rate was 145 Syrian pounds to $1; it increased to 200 Syrian pounds to $1 in August and to 210 Syrian pounds to $1 by the end of the year.)
‘Mercy’ Only for the Factions
In the summer of 2015, in cooperation with al-Liwaa al-Awwal, Failaq al-Rahman opened a vehicle tunnel between Arbin, Basatin Barzeh and Qaboun. During that time, other factions were also digging their own tunnels. But despite the new tunnels, there was no decrease in prices.
“We called the tunnel Rahma (Mercy), because we hoped that it would help people,” the official at the Rahma Foundation told Enab Baladi. But he explained that during the first two months, Failaq al-Rahman filled its warehouses with more than 12 tons of goods, claiming that it had to secure its fighters first, before opening the tunnel to people, organizations, councils and medical offices.
A Select Circle of Well-Connected Businessmen
Rahma Foundation was founded in June 2015 as a civilian front to manage the tunnel and set clear regulations for the transit traffic. The foundation’s director was appointed by the commander of Failaq al-Rahman. However, the foundation favored a certain number of businessmen, who in turn contributed to the faction’s treasury. The former director of Rahma revealed the names of these businessmen to Enab Baladi (their names cannot be published at this time), and explained that each one of them specialized in a certain kind of goods: food, propane, fuel, clothes and so on. He also revealed that the value of the goods transported through the tunnel each day is 15-20 million Syrian pounds ($70,000-$93,000). However, the amount of goods delivered to small store owners is very small, which explains the crowds of people waiting for goods at these stores.
As for the profits of the foundation, which go directly to Failaq al-Rahman, the official said that during the first three months, the foundation made $3 million. As reported in a meeting that the official attended, and which was joined by Abu Khaled al-Tawqi, then director of Rahma Foundation, and “Abu Nasr,” the commander of Failaq al-Islam, al-Liwaa al-Awwal in Qaboun also made the same amount of profit, because everything was divided equally between the two factions.
However, Enab Baladi was not able to confirm that dollar amount from an independent source. We contacted Abu Naim Yaqoub, the right-hand man of the commander of Failaq al-Rahman, but we received no answer.
The official asserted that the amount is the foundation’s net profit, and that the foundation spends approximately 30 million Syrian pounds ($140,000) per month – the spending covers the expenses of nine Kia 2400 trucks that work between 3 p.m. and 6 a.m. and the salaries of 450 employees, including drivers, workers, administrators, officials and custodians, in addition to security officials.
The official further points out that, during that time, Failaq al-Rahman had difficulties securing financial support, which it attempted to offset with the tunnel business.
‘Khaffash’ Speaks of the Secrets of Smuggling
Since the tunnels were of paramount importance to the factions, security forces played a major role in managing and enforcing laws related to the tunnels. Therefore our reporters met with one of the most prominent security officials responsible for the tunnels. He asked them to disclose neither his position nor his name, and chose to be called “Khaffash” (Bat).
Over the course of four lengthy, recorded sessions, Khaffash disclosed the details and the secrets behind the movement through the tunnels, including the movement of civilians, military officials and goods to and from Ghouta.
The terms of the movement of civilians that are publicly agreed upon by the factions are summarized as:
• Those passing through the tunnels must be born before 1970, since the factions are in need of young fighters.
• The person passing must provide clearance from the Unified Judiciary, to prove that there are no cases outstanding against him or her, and a clearance from the Housing Bureau.
• Fighters must provide an official permit from their faction.
• All documents must be submitted to the Crossing Office, which will assign the person a date to pass.
• Medical emergencies are exempted from the waiting period, but must provide a report from the Unified Medical Bureau.
• Under no circumstances are weapons allowed to leave Ghouta.
• No goods other than clothes and basic supplies are allowed (not to exceed two bags).
These conditions were strictly enforced for a brief period, during which, despite the internal problems between the factions, the unified leadership and judiciary maintained a strong rule in Ghouta. But after the killing of Zahran Alloush, a rift in the unified leadership emerged, fighting between the factions broke out and everything turned into chaos, Khaffash said.
Due to the widespread despair in Ghouta, some faction leaders would help young people leave Ghouta in exchange for money. They would enroll these young men in their factions, and then provide them with official permits to leave for a certain task in Barzeh or Qaboun, and from there they would go wherever they wanted. The cost of this service, according to Khaffash, was around 100,000 Syrian pounds ($465). But he pointed out that the situation was different in Jaish al-Islam. No one could falsify an enrollment form to Jaish al-Islam, except for the commander himself, since each fighter has a serial number known by all security branches.
As for the masked fighters, those from Jabhat al-Nusra, Khaffash further explained, no one had the right to question them. “We cannot trust anyone. Even within the faction itself, we all are suspicious of each other. It is always better to be cautious,” he said.
“We do not have the right to search Jabhat al-Nusra’s fighters, or even ask for their names,” said Khaffash, who opposes these policies. He also pointed out that “Jabhat al-Nusra does not follow the rules of the judiciary. It directly provides people with military permits with no clearance and no consideration of the judiciary.” Khaffash estimated that in two months, more than 450 convicts and wanted people left Ghouta with the help of Jabhat al-Nusra.
Enab Baladi met with some of the men who left Eastern Ghouta to Turkey through the tunnels. While the civilians paid 150,000-200,000 Syrian pounds ($700-$930) for a military task permit to get out of Ghouta, the fighters who crossed the tunnel using their legitimate permits had to pay $500-$2,000 in bribes to the regime forces in order to pass the regime’s checkpoints.
Weapons and Goods
There are three types of smuggling, according to Khaffash: smuggling out of Ghouta, smuggling into Ghouta and the goods that make their way into Ghouta and are later smuggled back out. The latter type of smuggling is rare.
The first phase of smuggling operations, as Khaffash explains, begins in Lebanon and ends in Barzeh, and is facilitated by officials in the regime. After crossing the checkpoint between Barzeh and Qaboun, the trucks are camouflaged and their plates are changed. This procedure is meant to protect the Syrian regime officials who do not want to get in trouble for smuggling goods into Ghouta. As soon as the faction’s leader approves the entry of a truck, no one has the right to search it or even ask about its content.
Marijuana and cigarettes are also smuggled though the tunnels. In December 2016, while Enab Baladi was working on this report, Khaffash stopped a truck carrying marijuana coming from Barzeh. According to Khaffash, the profits made from smuggling marijuana and cigarettes are much higher than those from any other kind of goods. The net profit on one container of cigarette boxes is 250,000 Syrian pounds (nearly $1,200), which means that with each load brought into Ghouta the smuggler makes 10 million Syrian pounds (almost $47,000). To prevent the smuggling of cigarettes and marijuana, the security personnel search everyone passing through the tunnels, whether military or civilian, except for those who carry an exemption document signed by the faction’s commander.
Smuggling From Ghouta
Due to the tight blockade imposed on Ghouta, people lived on very tight budgets and limited their expenses to very basic needs. No one was able to afford things like furniture or household appliances. But many warehouses were filled with these items from the time before the blockade. Due to a shortage of buyers within Ghouta, the owners of these goods smuggled them out, in cooperation with the factions, and sold them in Damascus. In other cases, the factions confiscated the goods of those alleged to be working with the regime, and sold them.
In the city of Arbin, for example, Jabhat al-Nusra accuses people of being Christian and confiscates their goods and property.
Smuggling goods out of Ghouta increased dramatically after the fall of Aleppo to the regime in late 2016, since everyone in Ghouta was scared that the same scenario might happen in Ghouta.
Weapons Enter Ghouta Only to Be Smuggled Out Again
Some small groups fabricate fake clashes. They document in the group’s registry that they used a certain number of bullets, only to smuggle them out of Ghouta to sell them in Barzeh or Qaboun. Despite being rare, many sources with whom Enab Baladi met confirmed that such fabrications happen. However, our reporters could not find any solid proof.
Some fighters smuggle and sell rare weapons that they confiscate during fighting, or those that they had owned before the revolution. This practice is legally prohibited in Ghouta, but fighters find a way around the law. They leave using military permits, which allow them to take their weapons with them after registering them at the tunnel’s exit. However, the fighters who plan on selling their weapons take advantage of the lack of communication between the different factions and come back through a different tunnel.
The Syrian Regime Infiltrates Ghouta and Benefits from the Tunnels
The Syrian regime has benefited from the chaos and the intersecting interests in Eastern Ghouta. On one hand, it has used the tunnel to establish a presence within Eastern Ghouta, while on the other many of its officials have benefited financially from the smuggling business that takes place through the tunnels.
Due to their constant need of fighters, the factions have facilitated the entry of young men into Eastern Ghouta, many of whom were sent by the regime. In many cases, the factions’ security forces were able to arrest informants who worked for the regime, and who had made their way to Eastern Ghouta through the tunnels.
According to Khaffash, women are more commonly used by the Syrian regime, since they do not go through such strict search procedures as men. Khaffash gave an example of three women who frequently went in and out of Eastern Ghouta. The security forces discovered later that their husbands were fighters with al-Wafaa Army, which is affiliated with Assad’s forces.
Khaffash asserts that the regime has full knowledge of the tunnels and uses civilians as informants. “We are infiltrated because of the tunnels. That is a fact,” Khaffash added.
Khaffash explains that it is almost impossible for the regime’s officers at the checkpoints not to recognize those coming from Ghouta. The way they look, their hunger and even their mud-soaked clothes are sufficient indicators for the officers to be suspicious.
Additionally, the officers of the Syrian regime work together to maximize their profits from the tunnels. Observing the dates on which the roads and the checkpoints were opened or closed, Enab Baladi found out that when the officers close the roads of Barzeh and Qaboun, which results in stopping movement in the tunnels, they open the Wafideen crossing point, and vice versa. This indicates that the officers on both ends work together to maximize their profits.
Right before finishing this report the price of one pack of Hamra cigarettes was 25,000 Syrian pounds ($116), and each cigarette was sold for 1,800 Syrian pounds (more than $8). But on May 25 Manfoush brought in a load of cigarettes through the Wafideen crossing point and the prices fell to 3,000 Syrian pounds ($14) per pack, and 150 Syrian pounds (70 cents) per cigarette, while a pack is sold in Damascus for only 200 Syrian pounds (93 cents).
Since the tunnels were recently closed on the side of Barzeh and Qaboun, Manfoush is now back in full control of the market in Ghouta. And it seems that his and his partners’ profits will increase in the coming days.
The following table shows the prices of goods in Eastern Ghouta in comparison with the prices in Damascus on May 20, 2017. (The exchange rate at the time was approximately 500 Syrian pounds to $1).
The Syrian Independent Media Group is comprised of six independent Arab media organizations working together to highlight untold stories from the war-torn country: AlJumhuria; Enab Baladi; Rozana Radio; Syria Deeply; Syrian Female Journalists Network; and Syria Untold. The project is supported by International Media Support.