Active smuggling routes between regime, opposition areas

A joint Turkish-Russian patrol in northeast Syria on the M4 international highway - 14 July 2020 (Enab Baladi/Yousef Ghuraibi)

A joint Turkish-Russian patrol in northeast Syria on the M4 international highway - 14 July 2020 (Enab Baladi/Yousef Ghuraibi)

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Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim

“A golden road, guaranteed, no one can stop you, a safe civil and military route,” reassurances carried by many almost daily messages on social media sites in northwestern Syria about smuggling routes between the areas of influence of the Syrian regime and the opposition.

These publications, especially via Telegram (the instant encrypted messaging service that is widely used in the region), are accompanied by video recordings of a number of “illegal” travelers, who in turn convey other reassurances that the journey took place without trouble, with expressions of thanks to the smuggler, despite the state of their tattered clothes.

Smuggling operations are not new, but they coincide with security and military tensions on the contact lines between the areas controlled by the regime, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and the opposition-held areas.

Although there are factions and military institutions that have promised to control smuggling operations, some of them are involved in it and in coordination with the forces of the other party to conduct these trips, which are not without harm and danger to people’s lives, as well as to the security of the region.

Under fire

Smuggling lines are active between the areas of influence of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) and regime-held areas in the eastern and northern countryside of Aleppo governorate.

These smuggling routes are among the most active in the region, especially for those coming from regime areas towards the Turkish border.

The smuggling routes vary according to the cost, as army officers from the regime cover the smuggling trip in areas under their control, while other smugglers supervise the follow-up of the route within the SNA-held areas.

Enab Baladi contacted one of the smugglers, who attached a phone number to one of the posts via Telegram, called “Abu Nidal.” He explained via a phone call that the cost of the “smuggling trip” varies from one region to another and decreases slightly if the group consists of family members or friends.

After “Abu Nidal” swore and made many promises to guarantee non-violence and not to expose the person to any trouble, arrest, or accountability along the way, he mentioned as an “additional reassurance” that the delivery of the amount occurs after the person reaches the place he wants, with the presence of a known agent or sponsor.

The “trafficker” added that the point of departure or arrival is the countryside of Aleppo. The cost varies from 400 USD if the destination is Damascus, 300 USD to Aleppo city, and 800 USD to Lebanon.

The cost increases if the person wants to be transferred from Idlib and its regions to the countryside of Aleppo and from there to his desired destination.

Despite the military escalation the region is witnessing, “Abu Nidal” confirms that “smuggling” is ongoing and does not stop, indicating that the entry process will not be from a contact line that witnesses security tensions.

Smuggling trips coincide with a Turkish military escalation since 20 November against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic forces in northern Syria and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq.

The smuggler’s reassurances expanded outside his area of presence in northern Syria.

Abu Nidal says the “coordination exists and people are being handed over to collaborative regime army members at the frontline, then they will be transported in a “military or security” vehicle to the area they want without encountering any problems.”

The military analyst, Brig. Gen Abdullah al-Asaad told Enab Baladi that it is normal for conflict areas to witness displacement waves and flee from the scenes of military operations to avoid bombing and preserve life, but smugglers often exploit people’s needs.

Syria Civil Defense volunteers move a victim’s body after a Russian-regime bombing on northern Idlib governorate- 23 September 2022 (Syria Civil Defense)

Syria Civil Defense volunteers move a victim’s body after a Russian-regime bombing on northern Idlib governorate- 23 September 2022 (Syria Civil Defense)

Coordination exists

With the sum of 1,550 USD, Mazen, 31, and his two children arrived four months ago to the eastern countryside of Idlib, coming from Lebanon.

Mazen told Enab Baladi that the money was handed over in the city of al-Bab in the eastern countryside of Aleppo after his arrival.

The smuggler, who is based in the southern countryside of Idlib, has achieved the “mission” in coordination with one of the regime’s officers.

Mazen, who is wanted for mandatory military service in regime areas, justified his decision to resort to smugglers that he had no other choice.

He reached the smuggler through friends who also made the same trip. Mazen was not alone in his trip that set off from the Jounieh area, north of the capital, Beirut, he was with seven more Syrians, he told Enab Baladi.

Mazen and his companions crossed a distance of two to three kilometers from the Lebanese border to the city of Homs, accompanied by Syrian officers, without being accompanied by any Lebanese officer.

After crossing the border, they (without the officers) got into a car heading to Aleppo, accompanied by a military member (his rank is unknown), some of them stayed in Aleppo because they hailed from it, and some of them went to the opposition-controlled areas, and when they passed the military checkpoints, the military member showed a security card.

Mazen arrived in Aleppo and stayed in a house belonging to the smuggler for two days, from which he was taken to the outskirts of the regime-held villages of Nubl and al-Zahraa, and then continued walking about seven kilometers to a room and from there to the SNA-held areas in the countryside of Aleppo.

Mazen, his two children, and another young man, accompanied by a soldier from the regime forces, arrived at a room within a farm, and they were handed over to a member of the “National Army” after “a greeting and a friendly conversation between the two members,” according to Mazen, who added that they gathered in the room for an hour to rest, and there was talk of trips coming in a few days.

At sunset, the SNA member, Mazen, his two children, and a young man walked towards the countryside of Aleppo for 15 minutes. There was shooting at them, they hid behind olive trees for an hour, then continued after the officer communicated via a wireless device with a “guard point” and asked them not to shoot.

After that, they moved in a car to a small house in a residential neighborhood. In conjunction with that, the Idlib-based smuggler received the money from one of Mazen’s relatives, so the other smuggler left Mazen and his two children in a street where Mazen discovered later that he was in Afrin city. This time, Mazen and his children made their road to the city of Idlib.

Danger haunts lives

Although there is coordination between smugglers from various sides, this does not prevent the risks surrounding people’s lives. The separating areas between the two regions of influence (the regime and the opposition) are considered one of the contact lines and contain minefields, and armed clashes and skirmishes are taking place between the two parties at a varying pace, and they are monitored by each party.

On 23 September, a woman was killed, and two civilians were injured when a landmine exploded while trying to cross the smuggling lines between the areas controlled by the regime and the “National Army” near the village of Faikhet Hamdan in the eastern countryside of Aleppo.

Enab Baladi’s local correspondent said that a landmine exploded with a group of civilians who were trying to cross towards areas north of Aleppo, coming from areas controlled by the regime through smuggling lines, which resulted in injuries.

Head of the Syrian Media Union, Jalal al-Talawi, (who is based in the northern region), told Enab Baladi that the Civil Defense, with the participation of the military police and civilians, managed to rescue seven people who were trapped in a minefield.

Smuggling risks northern region’s security

Mazen’s trip is one of the smuggling trips that take place periodically between the areas controlled by the regime and the opposition factions, which makes the northwestern region of Syria vulnerable to security and military penetration.

On 27 November, the Military Police in al-Bab city arrested five people, who it said was “a cell involved in working for the regime’s military security.

It stated that they have explosive devices designed to kill and terrorize people, and the task of one of them is to secure the passage of a person who is in possession of explosive devices to the “liberated areas.”

Several issues have surfaced recently, including the widespread protests that took place in the city of al-Bab, last May after information was received about the presence of Mohammad Hassan al-Mustafa, who is accused of belonging to the ranks of the Syrian regime and committing violations against civilians in the area.

Al-Mustafa, 30, from the al-Salihin neighborhood in Aleppo city, arrived in the countryside of Aleppo in late 2021 and was arrested by the Military Police in al-Bab. He confessed to his participation in incursions, raids, and arrests among the ranks of the Syrian regime in several Syrian cities, such as Daraa, Homs, and Hama, and to committing murder and rape.

Holding him accountable and those who brought him into the region and those who supervise the smuggling operations, and the factions involved in them are all demands called for by the protesters and increased after the Military Police released al-Mustafa in exchange for paying a fine of 1,500 USD over a mediation by Hamidou al-Juhaishi, commander in the Sultan Murad Division, a key unit in the Syrian National Army (SNA).

The negative aspects of the smuggling operations in the northern regions lie in the entry of elements from SDF or regime forces for reconnaissance, monitoring, threatening the security of the region, and carrying out sabotage operations, which is reflected in the security and safety of the region, the military analyst, Brig. Gen Abdullah al-Asaad, told Enab Baladi.

Al-Asaad believes that the positive aspect of the smuggling operations lies in saving the lives of civilians from exposure to the dangers of bombing and wars, as well as benefiting positively from personalities who come to the region in northern Syria to establish projects, invest, or otherwise.

With every bombing or assassination in the SNA-held areas, which include the eastern and northern countryside of Aleppo and the cities of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, there is talk of smuggling operations that make these areas exposed to targeting.

Despite the cessation of military operations in the region since 2019 following Operation Peace Spring carried out by Turkey in northern Syria, assassinations, and explosions are frequent in the area.

The responsibility for such attacks is often directed at sleeper cells belonging to the Syrian regime and the (Kurdish) People’s Protection Units (YPG) or the Islamic State group.

The Syrian Interim Government (SIG), the political umbrella of the SNA, issued decisions at separate periods of time, stipulating the control of smuggling operations and holding those responsible for them accountable, but they still exist, and some of the names that run the operations are known and reputable in the region.

The military analyst al-Asaad believes that the smuggling operations cannot be controlled in the absence of barriers and barbed wire along the borders, and cannot be prevented or stopped by any party, whether the Interim Government or the National army.

Smuggling cannot be completely prevented except by conducting permanent patrols throughout the day on the entire line of contact, and controlling this area between the two parties, according to al-Asaad.

The military expert pointed to the difficulty of the matter in light of the presence of villages overlapping with each other, as the distance and the dividing line between the two areas of influence are not international borders, which makes smuggling easier.

The issue is not limited to people-smuggling operations for profit, as the SNA factions are accused of bringing in and out materials and products to and from regime-held areas and of smuggling collaborators or regime-affiliated forces in exchange for sums through internal crossings, but the factions deny such claims.

Some factions also commit violations documented by human rights and humanitarian organizations, such as imposing royalties on agricultural crops, confiscating property, smuggling narcotic pills, and involvement in “illegal” excavations for antiquities.

 

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