Checkpoints and unbearable royalties, Fourth Division guzzles Aleppo

Bab Jenin district in Aleppo city - 18 July 2021 (Enab Baladi/Saber al-Halabi)

Bab Jenin district in Aleppo city - 18 July 2021 (Enab Baladi/Saber al-Halabi)

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Enab Baladi – Aleppo

The 54-year-old Saeed complains of the crammed army checkpoints inside his northern city of Aleppo. The barriers of the elite Fourth Division forces spread throughout the city where royalties are imposed on all cars and vehicles, and his travel bus is one of them.

“Over the past few weeks, the checkpoints have covered the entire city, and any road we pass through, we see checkpoints that forcibly impose royalties,” Saeed, whose full name Enab Baladi withheld for security reasons, said.

“If you pass through one of the Fourth Division checkpoints and do not pay what the soldiers asked from you, you will certainly be arrested on any charge or not be allowed to pass.”

The spread of Fourth Division checkpoints and personnel have increased significantly since the beginning of this year, after a limited recovery in the economy and the return of some factories and workshops to work in Aleppo and on its outskirts.

The “Fourth,” or al-Rabe’a, as Syrians used to call it, is operated by Maher al-Assad, the youngest brother of Bashar al-Assad. The elite unit was first formed in the era of the former Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, by his notorious brother, Rifaat al-Assad, who was leading the Defense Brigades.

The royalties collected from all checkpoints inside Aleppo city and its countryside reach at least a total of 240 million Syrian pounds per day (about 60,000 US dollars), where each checkpoint collects more than 15 million Syrian pounds per day (3,750 US dollars).

16 Checkpoints

The Fourth Division checkpoints are distributed as the following: Five in the western countryside of Aleppo, nine on the main road connecting the eastern countryside with Aleppo city, while the elite forces have reinforced its checkpoints on the northern and southern countryside roads.

Inside Aleppo city, at least 13 checkpoints have been set up by the Fourth Division. 

Ibrahim, 34, joined the Fourth Division after he agreed to the reconciliation deal, known as the settlements, and said that the presence of these checkpoints within the city of Aleppo is not desirable.

The merchants complained all the time of blackmailing while the Security Committee was not able to drive the Fourth Division out of the city.

Ibrahim, who declined to give his full name for security reasons, said that “this expansion, according to what some of the division’s officers said, is to prove that the Syrian army is who controls Aleppo and its countryside and that other parties do not control the city.”

But according to the Fourth Division soldier, “the aim of the expansion is to stifle the economic city and to impose fees and taxes, and we do not know who they are going to.”

The Fourth Division, with a number of about 15,000 soldiers, is never subjected to accountability amid claims that Iran is the regional power that controls and backs it despite committing massacres and war crimes against Syrians since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011.

Insistence to control

According to Enab Baladi sources, the Fourth Division officers forced a large number of security checkpoints affiliated with other branches to withdraw.

Last February, Military Security checkpoints withdrew from the eastern countryside of Aleppo and headed to the city due to an order by the Fourth Division’s officers. Also, it has taken control of checkpoints and barriers from army and intelligence forces all over the main roads linking Aleppo city and the southern, eastern, and western countryside of Aleppo.

Anas, 29, a member of the Fourth Division, told Enab Baladi that three checkpoints were located on the Mansoura road in the western countryside of Aleppo belonging to Air Force Intelligence, “which were removed by the Fourth Division, which justifies the order that roads between the countryside and the city are dotted with military barracks and points that the army established after taking control of the area.”

Since the expansion of the Fourth Division in the city of Aleppo and its countryside, the number of checkpoints belonging to the security branches has decreased.

The Fourth Division informed the intelligence services that there is no need for its presence since it will arrest the wanted people and send each one of them to the security branch that issued an arrest warrant against him, according to Anas.

Several checkpoints belonging to the regime were removed during the last period in the vicinity of the city of Aleppo and its countryside, according to what Enab Baladi monitored in the city.

These checkpoints belong to the security branches, “Shabiha,” and some military barracks, which deploy their checkpoints in Aleppo.

While some of the people who get arrested pay money in order to free themselves from being arrested at the checkpoints, which is why the Fourth Division insists on spreading its checkpoints in the vicinity of Aleppo.

Anas, who has reserved his full name for security reasons, added that there are Iranian militia checkpoints in Aleppo, but they have significantly reduced their presence in the eastern and southern countryside of Aleppo, in coordination with the Fourth Division, which has checkpoints close to the checkpoints of the Iranian-backed militias.

No cash, No pass

Royalties are imposed by the Fourth Division on all passers-by since the entry of the Fourth Division into the city, and even on residents who move from the city of Aleppo to its countryside or vice versa, which annoyed the people at first, but they got used to it for fear of being arrested if they refused to pay at the checkpoints.

Hikmat, 36, a soldier of the Fourth Division, told Enab Baladi that “when cars pass our checkpoints, drivers avoid any tension that might lead to arrest, and therefore prefer to pay, especially since some of the sums they pay do not exceed 3,000 Syrian pounds (about 80 US cents), and sometimes if the driver of a vehicle loaded with 5 million SYP (1,350 US dollars) worth of merchandise pays 100,000 SYP (about 26 US dollars), they will not make him stop for a long time, and his vehicle will not be inspected.”

Even in some exceptional circumstances, cars transporting patients and emergency cases are not allowed to pass through the Fourth Division checkpoints unless they pay.

The return of the economic wheel to rotation in Aleppo and its industrial zone has also turned into an opportunity for extortion at the checkpoints, the number of which are six in the industrial zone.

In al-Arqoub, another industrial zone, the Fourth Division set up five checkpoints that impose regular periodic royalties on merchants and factory owners, and even on sewing workshops that operate and export goods abroad or internally to the rest of the Syrian governorates.

Amjad, 51, owner of a factory for the manufacture and trade of clothes in the industrial district, said, “the Fourth Division swallows Aleppo in this way; however, all the merchants, including me, are obliged to pay; otherwise our work will stop, and our goods will be confiscated and sold at auction, then we will have to buy them anew.”

Despite the presence of officers at the checkpoints and some merchants complaining about the soldiers taking cash for allowing the passage of goods, nothing has changed, and things remain the same, Amjad added.

A large number of traders and manufacturers who were extorted and their factories and warehouses closed in an official order during 2021 left Aleppo due to the continuous pressure from the “secret office” of the Customs Directorate.

Although some merchants paid large amounts of cash so that their goods would not be confiscated and their warehouses closed, some lost about 3 or 4 billion Syrian pounds (between 800 and 1.1 million US dollars), and some even sold their properties and fled Syria.

 

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