Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1243, (23 - 29 April 2015)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1243, (23 - 29 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Syrian blood money

Smugglers, profiteers and corrupt politicians are making money out of the Syrian conflict, giving little incentive to see the war ended, writes Bassel Oudat

Al-Ahram Weekly

It was all very clear at the beginning. Four long years ago, the revolutionaries who took to the streets of Syria knew what they wanted: dignity, freedom and democracy. Today, the lines have become blurred and everything has become fractured, even the truth.

People who claim to be liberators are enslaving the population. Organisations that claim to be fighting for a cause are, in fact, fighting for hard cash. Even the regime that has turned a coastal area of the country into a virtual fortress, hedging its bets in case it splits up, is now posing as a bulwark against terror.

Countries that claim to be Syria’s friends have sent cash, weapons and even relief shipments, but often to the wrong side, adding to the confusion and making one wonder about their intentions.

Wherever you look there are warlords running gangs, as is the army, and foreign militias are fighting each another. The war in Syria has become a major source of income for many people.

People who lived a modest life before the war have now risen up the ranks and acquired money and influence. Once the wheels of destruction start turning, the conflict gains a life of its own. Men are corruptible, and militias even more so.

Syria’s losses over the last four years of the conflict are estimated at some $350 billion. But millions have also been made in the war by abduction gangs, protection rackets, men who run roadblocks, men who answer to the army, men who answer to the opposition, and men who receive aid relief and then sell it in the market for profit.

A million homes have been partially destroyed, another half a million totally wrecked, and more are being brought down every day. Yet some people have been living in Turkish luxury hotels for two years now, courtesy of the major opposition groups, pretending to be exploring ways to give the nation back its dream of a united and democratic country.

Reconciliation, meanwhile, seems as distant as ever. The regime accuses opposition members of being foreign agents, receiving cash from abroad, collaborating with terrorists and being terrorists themselves.

For its part, the opposition keeps demanding the overthrow of a regime that is armed to the teeth and relies on the help of powerful friends in Moscow and Tehran, as well as on multiple militias from the Alawite coast of the country, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere.

As the stalemate continues, the politicians seem to be receding into the background. The men with the guns are doing all the talking, and their point is being made with bullets, not arguments. Much of the talking now is not even about promoting a political agenda, but rather about grabbing land and exploiting anyone living on it.

Abductions and extortion, black racketeering and smuggling, taking control of the oil fields and exit points: this is how money is made in Syria today.

As the conflict turned from being a protest movement into a civil war, power shifted away from the politicians and into the hands of the warlords. The regime formed sectarian militia that are violent and undisciplined and have a tendency to run amok. But these were not enough, and so it brought in trained but equally ferocious militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran.

Syria’s civilians, protestors and the political opposition have all been sidelined. Their views have little to do with the battles on the ground, and there is little they can do to stop the nightmare the country is living through.

Even the goals of the conflict have been blurred. Because the militias take their orders from abroad, outsiders often become the ones who decide the next move, or the lack of one, determining in this way the country’s future, or its lack of one.

A rapacious clan: The family of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has been in power for half a century, during which it has run Syria like a private ranch or fiefdom. It has favoured its clan, a tiny Shiite offshoot known as the Alawites, over everyone else and given the Alawites the top posts in the security services, intelligence apparatus, Republican Guards and Special Forces.

For this reason, the sect has come to the rescue of its masters during the present conflict. Thousands of young Alawite men have been sent to die to save a regime whose crimes are a matter of public record.

Hafez Al-Assad, the father of Bashar, turned the Syrian Baath Party and the government into instruments of control to be wielded by the Alawites, and the favours weren’t confined to only the army and police. The Alawite community was also given first pick of academic scholarships, government contracts, real estate deals, the tourism business and much more.

Corruption was systemic. Syria’s $3 billion a year income from the oil industry should go straight into the state’s budget, but instead it went into the private coffers of the presidency, for example. It was controlled by the president, and very little was revealed about the way in which it was spent.

The maternal cousin of the president, Ramy Makhlouf, who owns Syria’s mobile phone network, was once said to control nearly 65 per cent of the country’s economy.

The claim may sound outrageous, but few doubt that the president’s family has accumulated immense wealth. The personal wealth of Bashar Al-Assad is said to be around $30 billion, his brother’s slightly less. His sister is said to own assets worth about $5 billion.

When the president’s paternal uncle died, his heirs started squabbling over his estate, and as the dispute dragged on it transpired that the estate was worth $5 billion, including properties in Syria, Europe, the US and Asia.

Rifaat Al-Assad, another paternal uncle, fled to France with wealth that no one has been able to estimate. However, it is common knowledge that he owns extensive property in various European countries.

One member of the family controlled a private port in Latakia set aside for smuggling and guarded by a private security team. In one incident, the team fired at army helicopters chasing one of its boats. The regime did not investigate the incident and showed no interest in closing the port.

Loyalist gangs have intimidated and repressed all possible opponents. Over the years, the regime has used them to detain thousands of opponents without trial.

The brutality of the gangs and the regime’s security apparatus was never as clear as it was during the Hama massacre of 1982, during which thousands of Syrian Muslim Brotherhood supporters were killed.

Since the first days of the present conflict, the regime’s security services have looted houses in areas under their control. The practice then caught on, and before long the regime’s auxiliaries had joined in the action. Homes and businesses were pillaged, and private property was systematically destroyed. The perpetrators knew that they could act with impunity, as the regime was too busy to try to control them.

On the other side of the divide, groups claiming to be part of the opposition have found that they can do the same. As the country fell apart, criminal activities became a way of life. Anyone who had a gun used it, if not in battle then for personal gain. Kidnappings became widespread; gangs believed to be connected to the regime were rumoured to be trading in human organs.

The pro-regime auxiliaries acted as absolute rulers, warlords, in the areas they controlled. They operated above the law and beyond the reach of justice. The regime gave them free rein as a way of buying their continued loyalty. Money was made fast, often by people who had little of it before the conflict began.

In Damascus hotels and bars a new crop of young men appeared, loaded with cash and determined to have fun. These were often men who had grown up in underprivileged areas on the capital’s outskirts, but the war has brought them power and fortune, so much so that some of them were soon bidding for homes in the best neighbourhoods of Damascus. Now they went into the best nightclubs, and they didn’t check their weapons at the door.

Throwing away money that was easily come by, these young men acted like thugs, forcing themselves on young women and threatening rivals with guns. “Shabbihet Al-Assad” is what people called them, or Al-Assad’s bullies.

Kidnapping swiftly became a business. Often people would know the name of the abductors and the places the hostages were being held, but no one would dare speak up. No one went to the police, because the police were involved in the abductions too. One man named Baraa Yassin paid $2 million to free his son from abductors. The money was paid to people who are known to live in Latakia, and continue to move freely around the city.

The pro-regime outfit called the National Defence Force features prominently in such stories. The group operates roadblocks inside and outside Syrian cities, and anyone passing through one a roadblock must pay something. It might be a small bribe to move to the head of the line. Or it could be a larger bribe if a name comes up on one of the most-wanted lists the outfit keeps with it.

The National Defence Force has hundreds of roadblocks in Damascus alone, and there are thousands more across the country. Manning a roadblock is a guaranteed way of making money and enjoying authority — a break for young men who never imagined they could earn as much money as they are doing today.

“Now that they have weapons and wealth, they will never go back to the impoverished lives they were living before,” one observer remarked.

Food trafficking: Those manning the roadblocks are also making a killing controlling the passage of food and other life-saving supplies into besieged areas. They can control the movement of essential goods, and they have been known to accept bribes to allow people, furniture and food to go through.

Theoretically, the army may blockade a certain area, but this can be negotiated piecemeal with the men operating the roadblocks. If the money is right, the blockade can be relaxed.

The regime made it a condition for UNRWA shipments, those provided by the international community to the Palestinian refugees, to be distributed through its own agencies. Theoretically, this was to protect the shipments. But in practice it was to control who gets what and who makes money doing so.

As a result, relief shipments have often found their way into the marketplace where they are sold to the highest bidder. The regime reportedly sent half of all the relief aid it has received to the Alawite-dominated areas on the coast and then sold the rest in the market, making millions in the process.

Other people make money be conning families that have relatives in prison. Men with real or imagined relations with the regime have made promises to the families that they can take them to visit the detainees and even secure their release.

However, these promises are often sheer lies, with the desperate families having no option but to pay, and keep on paying, until the money runs out or the conmen disappear. No one dares to ask questions, and no one can find any proof.

In the middle of a relentless war, the regime is still finding ways to enrich itself and its supporters. It has released a plan for real estate development around Damascus, for example, in which certain areas, many bombed beyond recognition, have been earmarked for development.

Thousands have lost their homes in these areas, along with most of their possessions. But now Al-Assad’s maternal cousin has been given a contract to develop these areas.

To ensure its control over the country’s wealth, the regime has shipped the Central Bank’s gold and foreign currency reserves to banks in the Alawite-dominated coastal area. Many of the army’s heavy weapons and the best of its fighter planes are also safely stored in this area.

Some say that this is the regime’s endgame. If everything were to be lost, at least it would still have its own mini-state on the coast, populated by supporters, protected by heavy guns and laden with foreign cash, they say.

Across the divide: For a long time, the regime had an absolute monopoly over corruption, but this is no longer the case. Today, the war has offered more opportunities for graft and misappropriation, and the takers have not always been from the regime’s side.

The opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) has failed to control the groups that have sought to join it. As a result, some armed groups claiming to be part of the revolution have taken advantage of the situation.

While only a few such outfits have engaged in illicit acts, this has been enough to give fodder to FSA critics. Reports that some groups affiliated with the opposition have engaged in bribes and extortion have not helped the revolutionaries in their bid to bring down the regime.

To curb such acts, the FSA and its affiliates set up their own tribunal to punish groups involved in illicit acts. However, this has not always been easy, and some activists claim that some opposition leaders have not been trying hard enough, or have themselves been benefitting from the irregularities.

As it turned out, militia leaders on both sides of the conflict have often enriched themselves from the war. People who had nothing before the war now drive fancy cars and are said to have stashed away millions of dollars from illegal activities.

On the pretext of fighting the regime, some armed groups have robbed factories and warehouses, while stealing from ordinary citizens and impoverishing others in order to enrich themselves.

When they seize the regime’s arms depots, as has happened on occasion, they have not been above selling the weapons for personal gain. Some have imposed protection rackets on their areas, and some are said to have made deals with the regime and its intelligence services.

Rumour has it that some have even sold information about other battalions to the regime for cash. Reports suggest that some opposition-armed groups have sold food and other supplies to besieged army units. Some are said to have offered the regime ammunition on condition that it would not be used against them.

All over the country, armed opposition groups have fought to take control of oil and gas fields, facilities and pipelines. Once a group takes over such amenities, it can make a fortune out of the illicit trade in fuel. Whether they are Islamists, jihadists or moderates, or even secularists, everyone wants the same thing: oil and gas.

The game went up a notch when the Islamic State (IS) group appeared on the scene. Brutal, well organised, and cash-oriented, this ultra-radical group has used oil revenues to stay ahead of the game. Oil, some say, has been the lifeline for the so-called caliphate the radicals have created in parts of Syria and Iraq.

The Kurdish connection: The Kurds have seen in the revolution a chance to achieve what they had not dared contemplate in the past. In their areas in the north of Syria, the Kurds have declared an autonomous zone, one that they may be willing, at best, to include in a future Syrian federation and, at worst, may try to secede.

Kurdish flags now fly in these areas, and Arabs are denied entry without a permit. The Kurds are said to have committed massacres to enlarge the territories under their control, and they have formed their own militia, called the asayesh.

Saleh Musallam is the leader of the Democratic Union of Kurdistan (PYD), an affiliate of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). Viewed with suspicion by his peers even inside the Kurdish movement, Musallam is said to have made deals with the Syrian regime and perhaps even to have supplied it with weapons to keep the FSA from his areas.

Musallam also has close ties with the Kurds in both Turkey and Iran, and he has received weapons and other forms of assistance from both. He is viewed as an absolute warlord in his areas, and he has no dealings with Kurdish parties that have failed to support him or consult with other Kurdish politicians. He is said to have assassinated Kurdish opponents, handing some to the regime and blocking others from passing through areas under his control.

Today, there are warlords on every side in Syria — in the Alawite community, the Kurdish community, on the side of the regime, on that of the opposition, among Islamists, secularists, radicals and so-called moderates. These are people who have the power to act with immunity, who use illicit means to gain power and wealth, and who will lose much if the war ends.

Profiteering from the war is common among the militia leaders, but politicians are not above dipping into the proverbial pork barrel as well. Some opposition members have lived free of charge for two years in five-star hotels in Turkey, courtesy of the struggle, their bills footed by the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF).

Activists, political opponents and relief workers have all been accused of profiteering from the revolution.

Some have bought houses in Europe and other Arab countries. Some have given their relatives jobs in the opposition groups they lead. Some are said to have stashed away millions while the rest of the nation suffered.

However, of all the profiteers in Syria today none has amassed as much wealth as IS. When it grabbed the oil fields in northeastern Syria, IS was said to be making around $2 million a day. Until the US-led coalition started its aerial campaign against it, IS operated oil refineries in Syria with the assistance of local clans who received a cut of the profits.

The group also controlled the dams on the Euphrates and large areas of agricultural land. It is said to have bought agricultural products at record high prices, thus winning farmers’ loyalty. It dabbles in other activities that bring in income. It has sold a massive cotton-ginning factory to merchants in Turkey and all the stock of sugar it found in warehouses in areas under its control.

It is said to have sold gas to the regime and provided it with electricity from the power stations it controls. The group also collects taxes, imposes protection fees and claims a religious donation called zakat in its areas. Most Syrians find IS even more distasteful than the regime they set out to depose. Had it not been for the underhand ways of the regime, the terror group would not have been able to put down roots in the country.

Economic woes: After four years of armed conflict, the Syrian economy is at a record low. Thousands of shops have closed and thousands of factories have disappeared, pushing unemployment to 70 per cent. The currency is worth only one fifth of its pre-war level, while prices have risen five-fold.

Exports have never been lower, and most imports are handled by smugglers. Tourism, which used to bring in $6 billion a year and employ two million people, is a thing of the past. According to the UN, more than half of the country’s population now needs relief just to survive.

In Aleppo alone, nearly 720 privately owned industrial firms have been destroyed. Hundreds of kilometres of roads have been destroyed, and the entire railway network is out of commission.

Out of a total of 91 hospitals, Syria is left with only 30 in working order. Only 4,000 schools are still functioning, while 8,000 others have closed down. Even if the war were to stop now, the recovery would take years. Experts say that anywhere between $10 billion and $20 billion will have to be spent just to persuade the warlords to put down their arms.

Peace is going to be expensive, and the country may need ten years or so to restore its former standard of living. It is likely that some of the warlords will hop on the bandwagon of reconstruction, grabbing the multi-billion dollar contracts needed to rebuild the country’s wrecked infrastructure.

Thus, the warlords will continue pillaging Syria until the last possible moment, then turn around and try to make as much out of the peace as they once made from the war.

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