Tue 17 Jul 2018

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Smuggling Routes Generate Millions of Revenues in Damascus’ Vicinity

Syrian young men who work in producing fuel in Damascus’ Eastern Ghouta – 9 May, 2017 (Reuters)

Syrian young men who work in producing fuel in Damascus’ Eastern Ghouta – 9 May, 2017 (Reuters)

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Yousef Abdel Aziz’s, the judge of the “Supreme Judicial Council” in Eastern Ghouta, ability to exit the area, heading to Sudan, early in 2018, despite the siege, that has been imposed on the area for years, became a matter of controversies and inspired a variety of questions.

Opinions differed about the way through which he managed to leave Ghouta and the reasons for his departure; some believe that Russia lies behind his journey to Damascus and then to Russia to attend the Syrian National Dialogue Congress that have been conducted in Sochi last week, while others have hinted at the existence of a military route, specifically for the factions.

A source, who prefers to stay anonymous, however, told Enab Baladi that the judge exited through al-Wafddien Camp’s crossing, which separates Ghouta from the areas under the Syrian regime’s control, after paying money for a mediator to allow him to pass through the checkpoint. From there, the judge managed to leave for Sudan, where he published new photos of himself.

The traveling and smuggling movement is not limited to Eastern Ghouta; it, actually, covers the besieged southern part of Damascus, where army elements and officers receive money to get wanted people out of the area to northern Syria or to Daraa in the south.

Southern Damascus is divided into three areas, through which the opposition factions spread, in addition to “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” and the “Islamic State” (ISIS). The Assad’s forces have besieged the area since 2014, after they managed to control a number of its villages. Following the siege, the opposition factions signed a truce with the regime, and the crossing in the town of Babbila, connecting the area to its regions, was opened, indulging the area in an ambiguous future, which triggered many young people to leave it in return for money, they pay to the Assad’s forces at the checkpoints.

Regime Officers Are the Most to Benefit

The journey is not free of charge, the expenses which people are supposed to pay vary according to the area of destination: Leaving from the areas under ISIS’ control towards northern Syria, would cost the smuggled person more than four thousand dollars per person, with a potential increase according to daily developments and changes in the route’s conditions. The desire to exit moved to the opposition-held areas in Yalda and Beit Sahem; the route from there would cost the same amount of money, with the different starting points.

People’s exist through a route, described by some as safe, would cost 4300 dollars per person (equivalent to more than two million and 21 thousand Syrian pounds according to the exchange rates), according to the information given by “Damascus Press’” Director, Fadi Shbatt, to Enab Balad.

He explained that the expenses cover the smuggled person’s arrival at the city of Idlib in northern Syria and then to Turkey, through the borders.

Shbatt explained that the journey kicks off from al-Hajar al-Aswad, under ISIS, and Sidi Meqdad, under the opposition, directly to Qalaat al-Madiq. The passengers are transported through a bus, preceded and followed by cars, without stopping at the Assad’s forces checkpoints, spreading throughout the road. The journey takes about four hours, during which the bus driver does not allow any of the passengers to get down under any circumstances whatsoever.

At reaching Qalaat al-Madiq, another team would be waiting for the passenger, which responsibility is to transport them to Turkey, according to Shbatt, who said that the fees that has been agreed upon is kept with a third party, that the former two parties trust. The third party is usually the journey’s guarantor. The money is given to the regime’s officers, when the passengers manage to cross the checkpoint and reach their desired destination.

As for the expenses of smuggling people to the opposition-held area of Daraa in Southern Syria is 1500 dollars (the equivalent of 705 Syrian pounds).

The people leave as groups that consist of no less than ten people, according the driver’s terms which they impose to guarantee the success of the process.

The costs got higher when the demand on leaving the area increased, according to interview conducted by Enab Baladi with citizens in Damascus’ southern neighborhoods, among whom is Hassan al-Mohammad, who confirmed that the first party to benefit from this are intelligence officers and the army.

However, many people refuse to take such a risk fearing detention, while Shbatt assured that no arrest cases have been registered, as to become a phenomenon, with the exception of two men who were arrested because they were late for the appointment with the person who had the responsibility to transport them. Usually, the guarantors act to release the arrested people.

The factions have issued an internal decree that provides for preventing people from leaving the area through smuggling. According to Shbatt, ISIS have launched large-scale arrest campaigns, targeting its own members who want to leave; it ambushed and confiscated their money and possessions.

Smuggling Mafia in Barzeh Took the Lead

The way out from Eastern Ghouta was limited to Barzeh neighborhood in Damascus, before it was controlled by Assad’s forces, under a settlement agreement that provided for the necessity of the factions’ fighters exit to northern Syria, last year.

The neighborhood has witnessed a multiplicity of smuggling operations, as it was the starting point for all the legally prosecuted people from Ghouta, Qaboun, and Tishreen neighborhoods. According to Enab Balad’s information, the operations were conducted through forging the official documents of the wanted people (Identity document, the draft card and an employment card), before moving to the transport garage in Damascus through a driver (transport operator), who makes a deal with the pullman driver, as to guarantee the safety of the person transported and to protect her or him from detention.

Informed sources told Enab Baladi that about 400 people managed to exit the neighborhood each month with a cost that starts at 1500 dollars (about 705 thousand Syrian pounds) to, sometimes, reach a max of 2000 dollar (the equivalent of 940 Syrian pounds).

The smuggling operations are not limited to people; they also included smuggling drugs, ruins and weapons. One operation centralized over the transportation of a turquoise stone, that weighed 3800 grams, from Eastern Ghouta, to Barzeh and then out of Syria.

The stone was supposed to be delivered to a buyer in the United Arab Emirates, who paid 60 thousand dollars. However, the merchant refused to sell considering the amount of money small compared to the weight and value of the stone.

According to Enab Baladi’s information, smuggling people and trading with ruins are performed by different people, on top of whom the intermediary, who is known in the area as “Abu Abdo al-Baron,” considered as one of the biggest smugglers for having connections with army officers and intermediaries affiliated with the Syrian regime.

“Al-Baron” was a former leader in Tishreen Neighborhood during the battles against Assad’s forces, before he signed a reconciliation agreement with the regime and exit to Idlib in 18 May 2017.

Al-Wafddien Crossing as a Substitute

After the Barzeh road was closed, exiting eastern Ghouta was limited to the al- al-Wafddien crossing, used for trade and the entry of humanitarian convoys. The crossing is controlled by the Syrian regime.

To Enab Baladi, sources confirmed that exiting the area has become more difficult and limited to the Syrian regime’s officers, in return for a sum of money that might reach a thousand dollars, only to transport a person to the capital, Damascus.

The crossing, in a similar manner, has been used as a passage to pass factories’ machineries and raw materials from eastern Ghouta, that has been besieged for four years now.

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