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Fueling the war

Sophie Cousins, Turkish-Syrian borderJune 27, 2014

The Turkish-Syrian border region has become a source of financial support for Syrian rebels as they seek to smuggle diesel to southern Turkey in return for cash to finance their fight against the regime.

Image: DW/S. Cousins

Each night, Adnan leaves his family behind and joins a steady line of trucks, weighed down by thousands of liters of diesel, heading to the Turkey-Syria border.

Once he reaches the Alaase River, which connects the Syrian border town of Azmarin and the Turkish border town, Hacipasa, he gets to work.

With the help of a network of smugglers on the Turkish side, he funnels thousands of liters of diesel across the river.

"We used to float the diesel in containers across the river and a truck would collect it," Adnan, with a greying beard, told DW as he took a sip of coffee at a house in Hacipasa.

"But now we use a machine and a 1.5-kilometer funnel that sends the diesel across the river. Three months after the revolution started, I started diesel smuggling. But it wasn't like it is now - we are very, very busy."

Financial source

a river Copyright: Sophie Cousins,
The Alaase River is a hub for diesel smugglersImage: DW/S. Cousins

The thousands of liters of diesel that makes their way in the dark of night to southern Turkey's Hatay province are a huge source of financial support for the rebels in Syria, and also for Syrians who have been left jobless by the war and Turkish middlemen.

Most of the diesel is sourced from Deir al-Zor, a province in eastern Syria and is often sold to smugglers in Marra, a small town in Idlib province, in the northwest of the country.

The diesel travels safely through Syria thanks to a network of middlemen who charge a fee to let the cargo through their territory.

Anand, who is one of thousands of smugglers, buys one liter of diesel for $0.70 cents a liter and sells it to the Turkish smugglers for $0.90 cents.

But the thriving illegal trade has become just another problem for southern Turkey's border region, which has been marred by bombings, fighting, and the influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.

The trade has become increasingly dangerous, with the Turkish military deploying troops and tanks to monitor the border for illegal activities.

Locals in Hacipasa said clashes between smugglers and the military had become a common occurrence.

"Now anything can happen at the border," Anand said. "The Turkish Army shoots at us - they shoot at anyone, including women and children crossing the river. They're killing refugees from Aleppo, Hama and Homs and the reason: diesel smuggling."

Despite the dangers, Anand, who crossed the border illegally for this interview, said he would continue to work.

"The first reason we do this is because we need the money. The situation in Syria is very bad. We are desperate and need the money."

Syrian rebels Copyright: Sophie Cousins,
Fuelling the rebels' causeImage: Reuters

Bond of trust

Back in Hacipasa, middle-aged Turkish smuggler Hakan sits on a couch next to Anand, chain-smoking. His eyes are noticeably bloodshot from exhaustion.

"There is trust among us Syrians and Turks in this business," he said.

Behind the living room is a warehouse filled with containers of diesel that he sells to truck drivers.

"I buy the diesel from Syria because it is much cheaper than here in Turkey, where one liter costs $2.15. I buy one liter for $0.90 and sell it for $1 a liter. I sell it to truck drivers who transport goods and merchandise around the country. Diesel is also transported to Izmir, Ankara and Istanbul."

Fueling the trade

Economist and energy expert Dr Cemil Ertem said the heavy taxing of fuel in Turkey and the monopolization of petrol and distributing companies was fueling the trade.

"Turkey's Energy Market Regulatory Authority is presently in the process of passing new legislations and regulations to control and limit monopol pricing," he told DW. "It is expected that the retail prices for diesel and petrol will cheapen somewhat. Smuggling is of course an unacceptable situation, however, this can be prevented by the implementation of the free market arrangements which would allow price equality. This is what the Turkish government is presently trying to establish. This issue cannot be resolved by shooting smugglers or by the use of military measures."

There are 15 villages along the border riddled with shops that sell diesel, which is also smuggled through the Bab al-Hawa and Tel Abyad border posts. According to Ertem many trucks have had spare storage tanks built in for this reason.

And that, said Hakan, makes it a very dangerous game between the army and the smugglers. "They have put up many checkpoints to stop diesel smuggling. But even if they put up 1,000 checkpoints we will still do it. The truck drivers want and need more. It makes a big difference to them."