The so-called Free Syrian Army commander leant against the door of his four-wheel drive BMW X5 with tinted windows and watched as his men waded through the river on the Syrian border moving the barrels of smuggled petroleum to Turkey.
Feeling the smooth wedge of American bank notes he had just been given in exchange, he was suddenly proud of everything he had become.
In three short years he had risen from peasant to war lord: from a seller of cigarettes on the street of a provincial village to the ruler of a province, with a group to man his checkpoints and control these lucrative smuggling routes.
The FSA has now become a largely criminal enterprise, with commanders more concerned about profits from corruption, kidnapping and theft than fighting the regime, according to a series of interviews with The Sunday Telegraph.
“There are many leaders in the revolution that don’t want to make the regime fall because they are loving the conflict,” said Ahmad al-Knaitry, commander of the Omar Mokhtar brigade in the Jebel az-Zawiya area, south-west of Idlib city. “They have become princes of war; they spend millions of dollars, live in castles and have fancy cars.”
Almost three years later after the Syrian crisis, discussion now surrounds fears of the growing power of al-Qaeda’s Syrian outfit, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and the criminality and corruption that grips rebel-held areas.
Syria’s north has been divided into a series of fiefdoms run by rival warlords.
With no overarching rule of law, every city, town and village comes under the control of a different commander. A myriad of checkpoints are dotted across the provinces: there are approximately 34 on the short road from the Turkish border to Aleppo alone. It is a dog-eat-dog existence, where men vie for control of territory, money, weapons and smuggling routes; it is, disgruntled civilians say, a competition for the spoils of war.
“I used to feel safe travelling around Aleppo and in [the neighbouring] Idlib province,” said one Aleppo resident who works with a local charity to distribute food to civilians in the area. “Now I am afraid to leave the street outside my home. Every time you move you risk being robbed, kidnapped, or beaten. It all depends on how the men on the checkpoints you are crossing feel that day.”
Fuel smuggling has burgeoned into a massive business, where smugglers and fighters take oil from the country’s rebel-held fields in the north, crudely refine it and pass it through illegal routes along the porous border with Turkey. Some brigades have given up the fight against the regime entirely to run the operations that line their own pockets; others are using it to fund their military actions, locals explained.
Some fighting groups manage the transfer of crude oil from the field to the refinery and then to the border, others have simply set up checkpoints that impose levies on smuggler gangs.
“Three years ago the rebels really wanted to fight the regime,” said Ahmed, an opposition activist living in Raqqa, close to the country’s oil repositories.
“But then the FSA started to control the borders and the fuel. After that it changed from a revolution to a battle for oil. I know rebel groups from Aleppo and Deir Ezzor, and even from Homs in the south of the country, that come here to get a share of the spoils.”
One officer, Ahmed Hamis, had been a representative in the Supreme Military Council for the Jisr al-Shugour area in Idlib province and had fought honestly against the regime, Mahmoud said. “Then a foreign sponsor started supporting him with money and weapons. He broke away to form a small gang.
“He has a lot of weapons but he hasn’t run one battle against the regime. He has no time for that because he has his own business, smuggling diesel and setting up checkpoints to levy taxes,” he said. “He also deals in kidnappings. If they catch a government soldier they’ll sell him back to his family.”
FSA commanders are increasingly using this to line their own pockets, focusing more on getting the sponsor’s funds than on the military operations, civilians and commanders have said.
Militants across the region expressed anger at the battle of Wadi Deif, a six-month siege of a huge military base which ended with the government retaining control of it.
Men who were in the battle told The Sunday Telegraph that their commanders had not wanted to end the battle because it was too profitable.
“Funds poured in from the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia,” said one fighter who asked not to be named. “And the siege itself made money: commanders were taking bribes from the Syrian regime to allow the regime to send food supplies to its men inside.”
For several months, foreign backers sent money and weapons to help finish the battle at Wadi Deif. It became, as one rebel put it, “like a like a chicken producing golden eggs”.
Suddenly many of the fighters bought new homes, and started flashing more money. One man said of Jamaal Marouf: “He had nothing before the revolution, now he drives around in his personal bullet proof car.”
Source: Alahednews website