Black fuel market booms with support of Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Syrian regime’s 4th Division in Homs

Domestic travel buses on the Homs-Damascus road - 12 April 2021 (Enab Baladi / Urwa al-Mundhir )

Domestic travel buses on the Homs-Damascus road - 12 April 2021 (Enab Baladi / Urwa al-Mundhir )

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 Homs – Urwa al-Mundhir 

In a shocking scene, very few vehicles can be found roaming the streets of Homs governorate. Since the beginning of 2021, the fuel shortage crisis has returned to the forefront in areas under the control of the Syrian government.

In a 10 January statement, the Syrian Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources (MoPMR) announced a “temporary” reduction in fuel allocations by 17 percent for gasoline and 24 percent for diesel across the Syrian regime-held areas. Within only five months, the ministry issued additional decisions to reduce fuel allocations. 

The Syrian government first phased out its fuel subsidies for the agricultural sector. Then, it imposed some form of rationing on fuel subsidies in two stages: the first was to lower fuel allocations for public transport lines within one governorate and between governorates, and the second was to reduce fuel allocations for travel lines in general, which led to paralyzing movement everywhere.

Where did oil supplies go?

The  Autonomous Administration in eastern Syria cut off providing fuel supplies to the regime, citing accumulating debt. In addition, the Syrian regime is experiencing aggravating gasoline shortages as a result of tougher US sanctions disrupting critical fuel imports.

What did the Syrian regime do?

With the deepening fuel crisis, the Syrian regime implemented a new policy of distributing fuel rations for each vehicle via text messages that specify the fuel station a driver should go to receive his ration only within 24 hours using his smart fuel card. However, the fuel rations were not sufficient to solve the crisis; drivers fail to receive their rations at the time specified in the message because of the long queues formed at the fuel stations.    

The Domestic Trade and Consumer Protection raised the prices of gasoline twice within one month. On 15 March, one liter was sold for 2,000 Syrian pounds (SYP-  One US dollar is equivalent to 3,060 SYP). Then, it rose to 2,500 pounds on 15 April. However, one liter of gasoline is sold in the city of Homs for 3,000 pounds and 5,000 pounds on the highway, as monitored by Enab Baladi

Who benefits most from fuel crisis?

While drivers and passengers are suffering shortages of fuel, the black market— which is fed by the Lebanese markets and protected by Iran-backed Hezbollah militias and the security office of the 4th Armored Division commanded by Maher al-Assad, younger brother of the president of the Syrian regime—flourishes.

The roles are divided as follows: Hezbollah, the 4th Armored Division, and the region’s merchants share profits made via fuel smuggling operations by one-third each. Fuel supplies are being smuggled from the Shiite villages controlled by Hezbollah in Lebanon (such as Zita, al-Safsafah, al-Hammam, Mutreb, and al-Fadiliya) to al-Qusayr, western Syria. Thus, fuel supplies are distributed and sold in Syria by merchants under cover of the security office of the 4th Armored Division.

Hezbollah takes up the fuel products to the Shiite villages; merchants smuggle them to Syria via fuel tanker trucks, accompanied and protected by the 4th Armored Division.  

Muhammad Suleiman, a resident of al-Sawadiyah village, told Enab Baladi that the Shiite border villages are considered a gateway for smuggling fuel products and narcotics into Syrian territory. They fully control the smuggling routes.

Suleiman added that Hezbollah-affiliated Lebanese people sell gasoline to fuel smugglers of al-Qusayr for 1,000 SYP per liter. For their part, al-Qusayr smugglers sell it to vehicles coming from the city of Homs at 3,000. This is because 500 SYP goes for Hezbollah and 500 for the 4th Division as a commission, and 1,000 for merchants and transport fees. 

Fuel merchants can move freely within the governorate of Homs only after they obtain approval from the security office of the 4th Division, which tightens its control on all roads leading to the city of Homs. 

Fayez Saad al-Din, a fuel stall owner on the Homs-Hama road, confirmed to Enab Baladi that gasoline is sold through designated individuals. It is almost impossible to bypass them in any way. “ Even if I want to purchase fuel from a merchant in the town of al-Qusayr, I will not be able to deliver it to my stall because it will be confiscated by the checkpoints of the 4th Division.”

Syrian citizen is paying the bill

After the Syrian regime failed to provide its citizens with fuel via text message service, drivers turned to buy fuel on the black market at a higher price. They raised the transportation costs twice the price fixed by the Syrian government. 

Youssef al-Nasser, a minibus driver on the Homs-Rastan traveling road, told Enab Baladi, “Closing the traveling routes is in the interest of no one including both passengers and drivers. No passengers means no drivers and vice versa. There is a mutually beneficial relationship between the passenger and the driver. Besides, the government cannot secure fuel subsidies to enforce its prices.” He added that several drivers met and estimated the transport fare at 500 SYP instead of 200. Thus, the traveling line was reactivated. 

Withholding his last name for security reasons, Air Defence Force recruit Youssef told Enab Baladi that the military laws are “strict.” In other words, he is forced to travel to Damascus, where he serves, at whatever cost. Consequently, he resorted to traveling in a van at double the official fare because he could not book a bus ticket at the transport company. 

Shocking numbers

Domestic transport companies that still get their shares of the government-subsidized diesel have kept their prices between 2,500 and 4,000 SYP from Damascus to the rest of the governorates (2,500 to Homs, 3,000 to Hama, 4,000 to Aleppo and Latakia), but with a reduction in trip numbers.

 It is worth noting that transport fares apart from public bus terminals have increased dramatically. The transport fare in a Van H1, from Damascus to Homs, amounts to 10,000 SYP, 15,000 SYP to Hama, and 25,000 SYP to Latakia and Aleppo. The fare of a passenger in a taxi from Damascus to Homs is 15,000 SYP and 25,000 SYP to Hama, and 40,000 SYP to Latakia and Aleppo. 

Abu Ali, a van driver on the Damascus-Homs travel line who spoke on the condition of anonymity with Enab Baladi for security reasons, pointed out that the price of the transport fares rose twice during the acute fuel crisis and the failed application of the text messaging system. “This is why we rely entirely on purchasing gasoline on the black market at a price of 3,000 SYP per liter.”

According to the Salary Explorer website, salaries in Syria range from 37 thousand SYP (8 USD-lowest average) to 663 thousand SYP (about 146 USD highest average).  In both the private and public sectors, a person working in Syria earns 149 thousand SYP (32 USD) per month.

 

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