The besiegement policy followed by the different parties to the conflict in Syria contributed to adding glitter to the names of a few merchants, who collected fortunes and accumulated wealth through manipulating the prices of the materials entering the besieged areas.
According to a report by “Amnesty International,” on last February 24, out of 419 thousand besieged people in Syria, 400 thousand are besieged by the governmental forces in Eastern Ghouta.
The siege usually starts with a specific restriction on food materials, which leads to inflation and boosts the prices of the commodities that are needed on a daily basis; this, after all, lies in favor of the local merchants only.
Al-Wafddien Camp’s Crossing economic control, in the period expanding from mid-2014 to the start of Assad’s forces attack on Eastern Ghouta, last February, was in the hands of the merchant Mohey Eddin Almanffosh, the owner of al-Marai al-Demshkieh Company, who also controlled the entry of food related materials to the city of al-Tal, through the Taiba checkpoint.
Prior to 2011, the very same merchant used to have a small cows farm, the products of which he exported to Damascus, the capital. Today, however, he owns more than a thousand head and promotes his products in the capital and outside Syria, in addition to the other projects he runs inside and out of Ghouta.
Al-Manffosh studied at Damascus University, the Faculty of Commerce and Economics and he is 44 years old. The labor force working for him, in the al-Marai al-Demshkieh, which is a dairies company, consists of about 1500 workers, according to Enab Baladi’s sources.
Al-Manffosh’s became a “celebrity” merchant with the beginning of Ghouta’s siege and through the bargains he conducted with the Assad’s forces’ officers. The gains of the last bargain, signed in November 2017, reached an amount of about 20 million US dollars, that are paid as royalties in return for allowing the entrance of commodities and food materials to the besieged area.
The royalty’s (Fee) amount for each kilogram of the materials entering through the crossing was two thousand Syrian pounds, paid to the Syrian regime and led to inflating the prices.
Currently, Al-Manffosh is at a competition with other merchants, as famous as himself, including “Abdul Dayem,” from the city of Duma, who formed a group of personal bodyguards, consisting of at least 20 armed men, after Duma’s people had raided and emptied his warehouse, following a siege that suffocated them in 2015.
“Abdul Dayem” and another merchant in the city of Duma, known as “al-Wazier,” (Minister) cooperated to compete with al-Manffosh for the control over al-Wafddien Camp Crossing. They managed to win the auction, before the last, in mid-2017. However, their monopolized hegemony over the crossing lasted for two months only, to resettle in the hands of al-Manffosh, as it used to be.
Darwish Controls a Strategic Crossing
Among the names that have been categorized as “war merchants,” there is the former member of parliament, Ahmad Darwish, who supervised the town of Abu Dali in the north eastern countryside of Hama, which almost formed a “free zone,” full of commodities, of which the all the actors on the ground, represented by armed opposition and Assad’s forces, benefited.
The road Hama-Abu Dali-the liberated areas was the life artery for both merchants and smugglers alike. The three-dimensional route turned into a commercial crossing between the areas under the regime and the opposition-held areas in Idlib and its countryside, and the northern and western countryside of Hama.
From the opposition-held areas food related materials were transported while fuel was brought from the areas under the regime, in addition to smuggling citizens from the regime-controlled areas to the liberated areas in northern Syria, in return for financial sums that sometimes reached more than three thousand dollars. It is important to mention that all these operations were conducted under the supervision of Ahmad Darwish.
Darwish, the Shaikh of “Bani Ezz” Tribe, was born in Abu Dali in 1959 and holds a high school certificate only. He succeeded in the 2012 parliament elections, as a representative of the laborers and farmers sector, before he managed to gather a number of armed people around himself, to become a military authority figure in the area and have full control over the life artery in the opposition-held areas.
Darwish’s gains and monetary savings cannot be counted, according to what a fuel merchant, who preferred to stay anonymous, told Enab Baladi, explaining that Darwish used to feed the area under his control and the people who worked for him with the crossing’s returns. He also appointed the commodities, to be sold in the opposition-held areas, prices, including gas, benzine, cigarettes and arms, and took a percentage of the profits.
Nonetheless, Darwish’s authority shrinked after “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” (HTS) took over the area, in last November, before Assad’s forces regained control over it and expanded their hegemony in the area.
The northern countryside of Homs under the opposition, which is also besieged, did not escape the phenomenon spread in other besieged areas- merchants who managed to make a fortune by manipulating the siege and controlling the prices of food and basic materials entering the area.
For instance, a commercial crossing in the southern countryside of Hama, in the village of Khirbet al-Jami, is controlled by Ahamad Sighati, whose name is derived from the Sighata town, where he was born.
According to the information which Enab Baladi managed to get, Sighati, 30 years old, works under the umbrella of the air intelligence forces; he is also one of the most prominent leaders of the “Desert Hawks Brigade,” active in the central area, which is run by Assad’s forces’ head leader, Brigadier General Suheil al-Hassan, nicknamed as the “Tiger.”
Sources, informed of Sighati’s life, told Enab Baladi that he used to be a shepherded prior to the revolution, then he fought with Assad’s forces for years at Hama’s northern countryside’s fronts, Murak to be more specific, before he turned to commerce through controlling the commercial crossings in the northern countryside of Homs, manipulating, to do so, his own affiliate military checkpoints.
Sighati sells food related materials in the southern countryside of Hama to al-Houla area’s merchants, who in turn sell the commodities to the rest of the towns in the northern countryside of Homs.
Commercial sources inside the northern countryside of Homs told Enab Baladi that for each passing car of “Kia” or “Hyundai” type, Sighati demanded a sum of money of no less than one million Syrian pounds (about a thousand US dollars), adding that the required money increased with the increase of the car’s size.
Other areas did not witness the rise of certain names to commercial power; but rather, Assad’s forces checkpoints played the principal role in these area’s markets.
“Palestine Branch” for Commerce in Southern Damascus
“Palestine Branch’s” checkpoint separates, both areas of Yalda and Babila, held by the opposition from the areas under the Syrian regime in the capital Damascus. The checkpoint’s mission was not restricted to the security dimension, it, rather, extended to take a commercial form, realized by monitoring the merchants’ cars that are getting in and out of the area.
Abdu Zaytoun, an activist who is informed of the crossing’s activities in the area, told Enab Baladi that the percentage which the checkpoint asks for in return for the commodities entering the area, reached its maximum amount, 30% per kilogram, while today it is estimated as 10%.
According to Zaytoun, today, the prices are close to that prevailing in Damascus, but the checkpoint is still demanding a percentage for each entering car.
Opposite to the situation in Eastern Ghouta, there is not a single dominant merchant; rather, there are a number of capital owners who are capable of admitting commodities, while the monetary returns are basically going to the checkpoint.
The situation in al-Hajar al-Aswad, under the hegemony of the “Islamic State” (ISIS), is similar to that of Babila and Yalda, for the merchants exit to Damascus and start working to enter commodities to the controlled area. Even though the monetary percentage which they pay to the regime’s checkpoints is not accurately acknowledged, it is not sufficiently different than the money paid at the Babila checkpoint.