Syria’s ‘surrender or starve’ sieges prolonged for profit
Trapped civilians ripe for exploitation by all sides in civil war
January 15, 2016 6:54 pm – Erika Solomon in Beirut
“We’re all under the same siege,” Fadi says, using a false name to protect his family. “But you have some people who have learnt to exploit the circumstances. Only corruption can explain how this siege can last so long.”
In the five-year civil war between the forces of President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels seeking to overthrow him, sieges — dubbed “surrender or starve” by opposition activists — have become a common tactic by all sides in the conflict. Although they are mainly used as a military tactic, activists, traders and besieged residents interviewed by the Financial Times say that financial gain is becoming almost as important in the brutal equation.
Siege Watch, an organisation tracking sieges across Syria, says more than a million people are trapped in besieged areas. The UN says that when “hard-to-reach” areas behind front lines are included, the number rises to 4.5m.
This week, the UN secured entry into the opposition town of Madaya and two pro-government towns in northern Syria, Kefraya and al-Fuaa, after months of tit-for-tat siege. Conditions were particularly horrific in Madaya, just 40km from the capital Damascus. A kilogramme of rice in the town cost $450 last week, says Mohammed al-Shami, an activist working at a medical centre in Madaya.
Mr Shami used to own a real estate business and a mobile phone shop but sold his car and his wife’s jewellery for enough money to survive on soup of water and spices, with a handful of rice, for them and their seven-month-old son. “Even now, with the aid, no one is eating until they are full. We can’t eat too much — we don’t know if the siege will tighten, or when we’ll see aid come in,” he says.
Analysts have warned that as rival parties learn to profit off desperate communities and each other, it is in their interest to maintain the conflict. Rami Abdelrahman, of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, says he suspects war profiteers of sabotaging ceasefires in the central city of Homs and the eastern suburbs of Damascus, which have been under siege by regime forces for more than two years.
“All sides do it . . . We have this phenomenon in Syria called the ‘checkpoint businesses’,” says Mr Abdelrahman. Checkpoints controlled by groups besieging each other are an opportunity for both combatants and traders to make money on desperately needed goods, with prices marked up by four times or more.
A wealthy entrepreneur from Damascus described how another businessman, who was close to the regime, had told him how he was controlling the supply of canned food to some besieged towns outside the capital. “He told me he had made $2m in the past three months,” the entrepreneur recalled. “If you go to the bars and restaurants around the Four Seasons in Damascus, you can’t find a place to park: there are all these people driving new Porsches, Range Rovers, Maseratis. Our nouveau riche is making money off misery.”
The area of Deir Ezzor city controlled by the regime, where Fadi lives, has been besieged by Isis forces for more than a year and is seen by some Syrians as an example of corruption prolonging a conflict. They point out that the regime, which has an air force, could airlift all civilians out. Fadi himself escaped last month after his family scraped together 250,000 lira ($625) for a “fixer” who arranged an escape from the city in a military helicopter.
“There are a few notorious commanders in Deir Ezzor who basically don’t want to let people leave until they’ve sucked out every cent,” the Damascus businessman said. “Even if it wanted to, the regime can’t stop them because the commanders of security branches and militia are warlords now, and their men listen only to them.”
Abu Hassan, a wounded rebel from the besieged town of Douma, is similarly disillusioned by his rebel allies. He was smuggled out after two years of siege through an elaborate network of rebel-built tunnels and ended up in Damascus. “An army commander with big dark sunglasses was there waiting for me with my new identity papers and drove me right out of the city. My battalion paid him $2,000,” he says.
The tunnels were built to bring in goods and supplies in recent years, but they also mean rebel fighters and traders can control the market. Residents have repeatedly protested against the system. Abu Hassan says he once saw rebel battalions fight over control of a shipment of sugar. “Sugar is like gold. You can sell it for 3,000 lira ($7.50) a kilo. It used to cost 70 lira.”
In Madaya, Mr Shami says another group who profited were men who stored petrol and saws. The drove into the hills surrounding the town to chop down trees for firewood, the only source of fuel under the siege. He says that enough firewood for a month of heat and cooking cost about $800 — beyond the reach of most families. “If you look outside now, the hills are bare,” he says.
Money transfers sent from relatives and friends abroad have become crucial in siege economies. Soldiers flown into areas of Deir Ezzor bring in money for families — for a cut. Money transfer offices are also profitable. A money dealer in a besieged area usually has a partner outside who can arrange payments and move money through checkpoints, say activists.
In areas under extremely tight siege, mobile phone credit is a means of money transfer. “A relative on the outside sends, for example, 100,000 lira of phone credit to a businessman inside the besieged town. He gives cash to the family, and then sells the phone credit,” one activist from al-Waar said. “People always find a way.”
But checkpoints remain the main lifeline, and some of the most notorious even have names. One in Deir Ezzor used to be called the Millionaire’s Checkpoint, after the protection money demanded of those passing through by militants. After the siege, when soldiers demanded at least $1,500 to move goods, locals renamed it the Billionaire’s Checkpoint.
For Abu Hassan, the rebel, life under siege left him too bitter to keep fighting.
“Anyone who tells you someone can end this war is a liar,” he says