Fourth Division strengthens “smuggling economy” with military deserters

Smuggling by motorcycles in central Homs governorate - August 2022 (Enab Baladi/Orwah al-Mundhir)

Smuggling by motorcycles in central Homs governorate - August 2022 (Enab Baladi/Orwah al-Mundhir)

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Homs – Orwah al-Mundhir

The Fourth Division, Syrian regime’s elite army force, has opened the door for young men of central Homs governorate to join its ranks in the northern and western countryside.

The Division seeks to strengthen its security barriers on the strip adjacent to the Lebanese border and in the villages and towns that lie on the smuggling lines, local sources told Enab Baladi.

The salaries of the new recruits range between 200,000 and 250,000 Syrian pounds (30 to 40 US dollars), in addition to a food basket that is distributed to the members on a monthly basis.

The administration of some checkpoints was also transferred from the authority of the Military Security and Air Force Intelligence to the authority of the Fourth Division to almost completely control the smuggling routes in both directions.

The checkpoints in the region have been considered, for several years, a source of livelihood for recruits and reservists in the Fourth Division, while today, they have become a gateway to escape from compulsory service in the regime forces while opening the door to direct recruitment in its ranks.

Military deserters

Wanted young men and those who have not completed compulsory service are the most prominent members of the Fourth Division in Homs, especially since membership spares them the specter of military service.

The Fourth Division’s membership also provides them with the opportunity to enjoy security authority and material gains to face the living crisis that the regime-controlled areas have been witnessing for several years.

The checkpoints of the Fourth Division collect large amounts of money on a monthly basis in Homs governorate, as they control the movement of merchants and civilians in the governorate, according to civilians interviewed by Enab Baladi from the northern countryside of Homs.

Fares, 32, comes from the city of al-Houla, and he is a recent volunteer in the Fourth Division. He told Enab Baladi that the door to join the Fourth Division has been open for about a month, while there are no conditions for joining, except for a copy of the civil ID that the volunteer presents, along with a copy of his military service booklet.

The method of joining in this way requires the volunteer to sign a “service contract” for a period of one year, which can be extended, after which he obtains a security card from the Fourth Division, according to which he can roam all over Syrian regime areas.

Fares, who asked not to reveal his full name, added that the volunteer receives a salary of 250,000 pounds and a food basket at the beginning of each month, in addition to some daily sums that reach 200,000 per month for each member, the source of which is the royalties imposed by the checkpoints on civilians, merchants, and smugglers.

Crackdown on smugglers

The checkpoints of the Fourth Division are the only concern for smugglers who are forced to pay money for the safe passage of their goods, especially those coming illegally from Lebanon.

Others take side and dirt roads to avoid barriers, while the Fourth Division seeks to tighten its grip on the secondary exits, as smugglers constitute an important source of money.

Omar, 36, from the city of Talbiseh in the northern countryside of Homs, working on the smuggling line coming from Lebanon to Homs governorate, told Enab Baladi that the checkpoints of the Fourth Division have increased over the past two months, as more checkpoints have been deployed on roads that were safe for smugglers. 

Omar added that the intensification of the checkpoints greatly threatens his work in smuggling, so he either pays additional sums to the checkpoints or the elements confiscate the goods.

Smuggling is considered a major source of income, especially for the residents of the northern Homs countryside, while the city of Talbiseh, following the “2018 security settlement,” has turned into an open exhibition for smuggled goods, according to what Enab Baladi’s correspondent monitored in the area.

Regarding the amounts imposed by the Fourth Division checkpoints on smugglers, Omar said that there is no specific price, as the amount paid varies according to the elements present at the checkpoint.

A profession

Many of the youth of Homs governorate are smuggling on motorcycles, and their cargo is limited to gas cylinders and a few liters of petrol, as they make profits through the price difference between the villages scattered on both sides of the Lebanese-Syrian border.

Smugglers work to sell their goods at fuel sales points scattered on the roads, which depend on black market prices, while some quantities are transported to the capital, Damascus, by buses or army officers’ cars, in exchange for profits for both parties.

Youssef, 39, one of the owners of the fuel stalls on the Homs-Hama road, told Enab Baladi that the gasoline sold on the stalls comes mostly from Lebanon through smuggling, in addition to a very small percentage that he buys from private car owners.

Youssef pointed out that the price of one liter of gasoline in the villages adjacent to the Lebanese border does not exceed 6,500 Syrian pounds, smugglers sell it to merchants for 8,000 pounds, and merchants sell it at prices ranging between 9,000 and 10,500 Syrian pounds per liter.

Whereas the price of a gas cylinder coming from the Lebanese border is about 90,000 Syrian pounds, and it is sold in Homs for about 140,000 pounds.

A bus driver on the Homs-Damascus road, whose name was kept for security reasons, told Enab Baladi that his work in smuggling, along with others, spared the governorate of Homs from paralyzing the movement of vehicles.

The smuggler stated that the prices also vary between the governorate of Homs and its neighboring Syrian governorates, as the price of a gas cylinder in Homs is 140,000 Syrian pounds, while it is sold in Damascus for 160,000, and a liter of gasoline, which is sold in Homs for 10,000, is sold in Damascus for 14,000 pounds.

According to a study published by the European University Institute (EUI), the Fourth Division accumulated capital during the years of the conflict from war economic activities.

The study, titled “The Fourth Division’s Economy Network during the Syrian Conflict,” stated that the most prominent activities run by the Fourth Division are the “scrap” trade, “looting,” and “companionship,” where official and semi-official military groups escort and protect trucks. Commercial transportation from one region to another, in return for receiving money from the owners of these goods,

Among the activities is “demarcation,” where those in charge of the internal crossings, who are official and unofficial military groups, charge financial fees for the passage of goods and individuals from one area to another.

The Lebanese International Information magazine, which specializes in publishing studies, research, and statistics, stated that fuel smuggling from Lebanon to Syria costs Lebanon about 200 million US dollars annually.

 

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