“I transport the entire load passing by the security officers and with their blessing. I’ve been in the business for about a year now, and I buy and sell the same type of ammunition from both parties (the regime and IS) according to market and demand.”
div>(ِِAs-Swaydaʼ – Syria) The Syrian regime trades weapons and mazut (fuel oil) with the self-declared Islamic State (IS) at the expense of security and stability in the as-Swaydaʼ governorate. According to smugglers and local residents, regime institutions also make profits as people hurriedly seek weapons to defend themselves against the takfiri organisation.
In late August 2015 (1), a group of young men in the village of Sahwat Balatah in the southern countryside of as-Swaydaʼ seized a car loaded with Russian ammunition – bullets, bombs, mortar shells and thermal rockets – hidden under mazut (fuel oil) barrels. According to eyewitnesses among the local residents, the vehicle was taking the mountain road, fully loaded, and heading east where the Islamic State is based.
ʿImad (2), one of the young men who took part in the plundering, related the incident to Good Morning Syria in an interview in early September. “I was in the mountains when I grew suspicious about a car that was smuggling mazut on its way back from the opposition-held town of Kharba, headed west to east. When we (the guys and I) approached it, two men started shooting at us and then ran away leaving the car behind, lock, stock, and barrel,” he explained.
Along with another person, Imad unloaded all the ammunition he could carry. He then called friends from the National Defence, the al-Baʿath Brigades, the Popular Committees and other regime-affiliated militias in neighbouring villages, such as Rasas and al-Kafr, and they carried on the pillaging. In an interview held in early September as well, ʿAsim, a member of the Popular Committees, confirmed that everyone helped plunder the load. “The ammunition was divided among the boys and no one went home empty-handed,” he said.
Residents of Sahwat Balatah testified that the young men, who were more than 20 in number, had seized over half of the car’s load – seven barrels and dozens of boxes – when the Air Force Security arrived and confiscated what was left of the ammunition, without carrying out any due procedure regarding the fate of the stolen goods.
The incident was not the first of its kind. In fact, eyewitnesses from Rasas, al-Kafr and as-Swaydaʼ mentioned that this was the ninth car loaded with ammunition that was seized between the months of August and September. The vehicles were not only found in distant villages, but reached the Tishrin Square in the centre of as-Swaydaʼ, which is entirely controlled by the regime. The news was even broadcasted by the Syrian state-run al-ʿIkhbariyyah television channel.
Speaking to Good Morning Syria in late October, smuggler Ahmad explained the mazut trade and its latest developments. “We used to smuggle mazut at low prices at first (in early 2014). We would gain 30.000 SYP (approximately 80 USD) (3) per barrel and give the men at the security checkpoints 10.000 SYP (26 USD). However, as the number of smugglers increased, the Islamic State started selling us the barrel at 36.000 SYP (94 USD) in the ash-Shiʿab region (located southeast of as-Swaydaʼ, where mazut is refined and sold). The Bedouins (in the west) pay us 40.000 SYP (104 USD) for a barrel of yellow-dyed mazut and 38.000 SYP (100 USD) for each barrel of red-dyed mazut. As a result, our profits only cover our daily expenses now,” he said.
As for arms trafficking, Ahmad, who also happens to smuggle weapons, added: “Not everyone who smuggles mazut is necessarily a gunrunner. However, those who used to earn over 500.000 SYP (1.308 USD) every month, now only make 200.000 SYP (523 USD). Therefore, they began smuggling large shipments of arms after having bribed the men at all the security checkpoints (on their way). Once, I witnessed a huge arms deal of 60 million SYP (157.068 USD), only to find out later on that it was sold at 200 million SYP (523.560 USD) to the Bedouins who had openly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in the al-Asfar and al-Qasr regions, east of as-Swaydaʼ.”
The roads used to smuggle goods are simple and well known. Long convoys travel east to west to transport mazut and west to east to transport weapons. The main road used for arms trafficking begins in the villages of Kharba and ʿEra in the west, and passes through Rasas and six other villages to end in the town of Malah. Mazut is smuggled the opposite way.
As for the cars involved in the process, they come in different sizes. They may carry a reservoir on top or simply transport the mazut barrels. The seats in small taxes or other public transportation vehicles (locally referred to as seravis) are sometimes replaced with barrels to hide the smuggled goods. Nonetheless, the process has recently become more complicated given the increasing prices of products at the source, which also resulted in less profit.
Ahmad, the smuggler, is certain that the security forces are involved in arms trafficking. “At first, members of the Military Security were the ones smuggling weapons. We used to see them with our own eyes. Now, these same officers are trafficking arms to the Bedouins in the east, making millions at our expense,” he confirmed. In fact, local residents have already posted photos of security officers and young smugglers, flaunting the amount of money they made in record time, on their personal profiles on social media.
Waʿel, a young man from the town of Rasas who openly smuggles mazut and trades weapons secretly, confirmed there is a shared interest between the regime and the Islamic State. “I transport the entire load passing by the security officers and with their blessing. I’ve been in the business for about a year now, and I buy and sell the same type of ammunition from both parties (the regime and IS) according to market and demand,” he explained in an interview in mid-November 2015.
Weapons have spread randomly in as-Swaydaʼ recently, especially after the ath-Tha’la airbase battle in June 2015. In that occasion, the regime temporarily withdrew, evacuating the officers in planes and leaving a number of low-ranking soldiers only. This destabilised security and aggravated the spreading of weapons even after the officers returned once the battle was over.
Other factors that increased the demand for weapons include the recurring attacks of the Islamic State against the eastern villages of the governorate. The army did not intervene to protect the civilians, nor did it supply them with medium weapons to defend themselves. The situation was particularly worsened after Shaykh Wahid al-Balʿus formed his armed faction (Banners of Dignity, Bayareq al-Karama), which is now ready to engage in any action following the death of the Shaykh on September 4. Similarly, the formation of the Armed Sheikhs group (al-Mashaykh al-Musallaha), which is composed of different factions, further destabilised the region. The group members dress in religious Druze clothing and are supplied with weapons by the rich residents of as-Swaydaʼ.
According to Walid, a local purchaser of smuggled arms who refused to mention the name of his village, the authorities encourage the spread of weapons instead of limiting it. “I bought a Kalashnikov and ammunition from the security forces, and received others from a smuggler who had hidden them for me. There was no difference between the two as the source was the same one,” he told Good Morning Syria in mid-November.
Consequently, those who smuggle weapons to both parties – the Druze militias and the Islamic State – are the ones who profit the most, be it the Military Security forces or the smugglers.
The hardships faced by journalists in regime-held areas affected this investigation. Therefore, it relied on a number of interviews which took place at different times.
All names used are pseudonyms to protect the identity of the sources.
Prices are according to the black market in as-Swaydaʼ: one dollar was the equivalent of 382 Syrian pounds on 2 December 2015.