Smuggling Away the Future in Syria’s Northeast

October 26, 2021
Gregory Waters  —  Research Analyst

October marks seven years since the United States first began providing equipment and air support to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), and later to their umbrella organization the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in their anti-ISIS campaign in northeast Syria. After the fall of ISIS’s so-called caliphate, the U.S. government has continued to provide military support to these institutions and their new political body—the Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria—conducting joint counter-ISIS operations in an attempt to end the ongoing insurgency in the region. Recent reporting on northeast Syria has highlighted the reduction in ISIS attacks and boasted of a “return to normalcy” thanks to these security efforts. However, such reporting is misleading and relies on cherry-picked data that assesses ISIS’s strength purely through the number of reported attacks and uncritically sharing media statements from Kurdish leaders.

A more compressive examination of the region presents a starkly different picture, one in which ISIS is entrenching itself among the disenfranchised communities of internally displaced people (IDPs), retains extensive freedom of movement across the northeast’s borders with Iraq and regime-held Syria, and conducts widespread financing and logistical operations. Much of this resiliency is due to the worsening economic situation in the northeast, which has caused a steep rise in smuggling, deepened distrust between locals and the Autonomous Administration, and left young men susceptible to ISIS recruitment. The situation is so bad now that young men are fleeing the region en masse, risking the deadly smuggling routes to Europe for the chance at a future. Rather than focus on maintaining the status quo, U.S. policy should be enhanced to better address these non-military aspects of the ISIS insurgency and roll-back the impending crises in the northeast.

Sheep as the New Oil

The recent capture of ISIS’s head of finance by Turkish forces in northwest Syria has brought renewed attention to ISIS financial networks. But security analyst Alex Almeida warns that, “His capture is likely not a big deal. Local cells in Iraq and Syria can mostly self-finance, and ISIS probably has several deputies that can take over the larger international finance networks if that’s what he was still overseeing.” This devolution of financing to the local level is precisely what has been observed in central and northeast Syria, and it has allowed ISIS to remain resilient and regrow its networks.

The kidnapping of 60 civilians in eastern Hama on April 6, 2021, while shocking in its brazenness, underscored the growing reality of ISIS operations in this under-studied region of central Syria. Nearly all of the civilians were released in a quickly arranged prisoner swap that saw the family members of local ISIS fighters freed from the nearby regime prison in Salamiyah. This prisoner exchange further supports regime claims that most ISIS fighters who have been operating in east Hama for the past year are locals. ISIS has taken advantage of these cells’ local knowledge in eastern Hama to bolster its broader insurgency across Syria.

Source: Newslines Institute for Strategy and Policy

Based on local reporting and interviews conducted by this author, it appears that ISIS has used its presence in eastern Hama and the area bordering southern Raqqa and southern Aleppo to conduct widespread smuggling and fundraising operations. Cells in these areas steal sheep from locals and either use them to sustain themselves or smuggle them across the Euphrates River into northern Raqqa. In areas controlled by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), ISIS members posing as civilians sell the sheep on the open market, to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) (the U.S.-designated terrorist group affiliated with the SDF), or smuggle them across the Iraqi border.

The first major signs of this financing operation came in early 2021, when a regime officer based in eastern Hama told this author that “hundreds” of sheep were disappearing every week. According to the officer, locals were increasingly complaining to security forces that their flocks were being stolen, but neither locals nor security forces were able to locate any of the sheep.

Local reporting has hinted at ISIS’s operation, though not to the degree the officer claimed. Attacks on civilians in this rural agricultural area increased significantly in February and March 2021. Most news reports spoke of ISIS mines intentionally laid in grazing areas and along roads that left dozens dead or wounded every month. However, there have also been at least 23 publicly reported attacks on shepherds in these areas since ISIS first re-emerged in eastern Hama in mid-2020. One of the group’s first major attacks in the governorate took place in a remote village. ISIS stole the villagers’ sheep, killing one civilian and those animals they could not take with them. Two months later, in September, militants killed 12 shepherds and carted away their entire flock. In November 2020, local security forces clashed with ISIS after coming across what they referred to as an “ISIS sheep transport” near the major highway connecting east Hama with Raqqa.

On multiple occasions this year, shepherds have been found executed with gunshots to their heads in eastern Hama, southern Aleppo, and southern Raqqa. The situation became so bad in eastern Hama that Syrian regime security forces, who for months had been conducting “sweeping operations” to try and dislodge insurgents, began focusing instead on guarding shepherds. This new policy coincided with a sharp drop in ISIS activity in the province in general. The regime officer claims that by late June the cells active in the area had all left, as they could no longer easily prey on the herds.

However, it appears that these or other cells renewed their sheep thieving operations within weeks, this time focusing on the nearby southern Raqqa countryside. Reports on local Facebook pages of attacks on shepherds there began trickling in throughout July and August and then surged in September when militants kidnapped, killed, or attacked shepherds at least once each week.

This activity is not confined to the regime-held parts of Syria either, occurring at a smaller level across the SDF-held northeast as well. On two occasions in the first week of October, locals reported online that “unidentified militants” stole dozens of sheep from two villages outside the city of Raqqa. Hassan, a farmer and sheep trader from Raqqa, told this author that in such cases the stolen sheep are often either smuggled into Iraq or south across the “border” to regime-held areas to be sold in the markets where locals would be unaware of their illicit origins.

In late May, shortly after the aforementioned regime officer spoke of the sheep thefts in Hama, a local researcher in north Raqqa told this author that as many as 23,000 sheep had been smuggled into the SDF-held regions from southern Raqqa during the first few months of 2021. This massive movement of sheep came amid a surge in locals fleeing widespread ISIS activity across southern Raqqa and eastern Hama.

Officials from the SDF and Asayish (the Administration’s internal security force) in Raqqa told this author in May that ISIS militants, disguised as civilians, are regularly using both the official and unofficial border crossings to move between regime- and SDF-held Raqqa. Terrorizing locals in regime areas not only allows militants to steal valuable goods, but also drives more people from their homes, increasing the IDP flow across these difficult-to-secure border zones and providing additional cover for ISIS movement.

A United Nations Transit Point Monitoring report from January 2021 claimed that in a two-week period more than 16,000 people had crossed into SDF-held north Raqqa using just the three official crossings. IDP movement reached a six-month high in March before dropping over the summer, according to Administration leaders in Raqqa. These numbers do not account for the plethora of unofficial crossings regularly used by both locals and ISIS, but the reported surge and drop in IDP movement coincides with a similar pattern of ISIS activity in east Hama and south Raqqa.

All of this points to a sustained supply and fundraising operation conducted by ISIS cells in both regime- and SDF-held Syria, exploiting the embedded underground economy of the region. Hassan maintains that sheep smuggling does not account for most of ISIS’s new revenue. He points instead to the group’s extortion of businesses in Raqqa and Deir Ez Zor and the protection fees it collects from truckers carrying oil and other goods between the northeast and western Syria. However, throughout early 2021, sheep were selling for around 7,500 Syrian pounds in Raqqa, meaning that ISIS could easily be raising millions of Syrian pounds every month solely through this enterprise.

An informal IDP camp housing more than 1,000 people on the southern edge of Raqqa city, established in 2018. Picture by author.

Weakened Economy, Strengthened ISIS

Yet in conversations with this author, Hassan pointed to a larger issue beyond the financial and logistical benefits to ISIS from stealing sheep. Hassan also accuses the PKK of smuggling sheep out of the northeast and into Iraq, where they sell them to factions of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units. This author heard the same from other locals in Raqqa in May. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime and Iraqi Shiite militias operating in western Deir Ez Zor are also accused of stealing sheep from locals. “During the era of Saddam Hussein, the traders of Iraq depleted their livestock,” Hassan says. “Syria, Turkey and Iran were the beneficiaries of that livestock, and now a reverse process has begun from Syria back to Iraq.”

The depletion of sheep is exacerbated by the impact of drought and water shortages on farmers’ ability to grow feed. All of these factors combine to paint a devasting picture for the fate of the northeast’s herds. The loss of this economic sector in a region which historically has relied on herding and agriculture for employment will only further intensify grievances that could be exploited by ISIS. According to Shadi (*not his real name), a researcher in Raqqa, nearly 70 percent of locals there work in the agriculture sector and have been hit hard by successive droughts and a lack of support from the Administration. “Now the enemy is not just ISIS; hunger, ignorance, poverty, drugs, and corruption are all against civilians,” says Hassan, referring to financially and food insecure civilians that have become targets for ISIS and criminal recruitment.

His words echo complaints this author heard on numerous occasions from both civilians and security officials in Raqqa and Deir Ez Zor earlier this year. ISIS has successfully exploited the worsening economic conditions of the northeast, increasing recruitment among the approximately 630,000 people who live in IDP camps, and even paying local youth to carry out attacks on security checkpoints. The connection between a poor economy and ISIS’s endurance has been written about repeatedly in recent years. In May 2019, a U.S. official told the International Crisis Group, “When people talk about the reintegration or reconciliation process with ISIS guys, they frequently say they need jobs, livelihoods and education. If these people come back and have nothing to do, they’ll just get up to mischief again.” According to Almeida, since losing its caliphate, ISIS has focused its recruitment efforts in Iraq and Syria on communities that are both struggling economically and feeling abandoned by their governments.

Nearly three years after ISIS lost their last bit of territory in the northeast, the Kurdish-run Autonomous Administration is still viewed as outsiders in the Arab-majority regions of Raqqa and Deir Ez Zor. Building governance legitimacy in these areas therefore rests on the Administration’s ability to provide security and services to locals. Yet the Administration is hemmed in on all sides by antagonistic actors: Official crossings into Iraq are closed, it remains at war with Turkey to the north, and the Assad regime and Russia look to exploit it at every turn.

The Administration is thus forced to sell the oil and gas produced in the fields under its control to the regime, itself bankrupt and unable to pay. Unable to sell or export its only natural resource to anyone with money, the Administration has been bled dry (the heavy subsidization of goods and the constant expansion of its armed forces has not helped its budget either). Local aid organizations have also been hit hard by the economic crash while at the same time dealing with a rise in IDPs and local needs. Aid organizations in northeast Syria have reportedly faced severe funding cuts this year and are no longer able to conduct long-term projects. This has led to a sharp reduction in immediate aid to the vulnerable IDP population that only continues to grow.

The dire economic situation reached a turning point earlier this year. On May 17, the Administration announced it would be raising fuel prices “in an attempt to curb oil smuggling,” triggering widespread protests in both Arab and Kurdish towns. Security forces fired on several of the protests, killing seven protestors. On May 19, the Administration reversed its order. Less than two weeks later protests erupted again, this time in the city of Manbij where Arab tribes took to the streets to protest the worsening economic conditions and forced conscription by the SDF. Protestors were once again met with gun fire from the U.S.-backed forces. One civilian was killed on the first day and seven on the second day of protests.

Both of these events should serve as major warnings for the fate of the northeast in the near future. Civilians will be quick to protest any subsidy reversals again—and the SDF and Asayish have proven unable to react non-violently to these protests. In conversation with this author, both civilians and local researchers have made it clear that both Arab and Kurdish civilians blame the Administration for the deteriorating economy. “Anger towards the SDF has grown due to angers over the economy,” says Shadi*. “Civilians blame the corruption of the Autonomous Administration. They believe there is a lot of money coming into the Administration from the coalition and oil trade and taxes but do not see any of it being used to help civilians.”

Shadi* cites the construction sector as a prime example of this corruption, noting that the cost of steel and concrete in Raqqa is nearly twice that as in Turkish and regime areas due to Administration-affiliated businessmen who have monopolized the market. The high cost of these materials has slowed the once promising progress of rebuilding the city and its countryside following the battles against ISIS. Part of the reconstruction slow-down is also due to the increasing difficulties acquiring building materials, as the SDF-Turkey war prevents any trade through that country and the Administration’s relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq have deteriorated in recent months.

Regardless of whether or not Administration-enabled corruption is the true reason behind the construction slow-down, the local perception of this is enough to weaken the Administration’s legitimacy. Many specifically accuse the PKK of siphoning off the northeast’s funds and natural resources to finance its war against Turkey, and see the Administration as complicit in this. But without any serious structural changes or changes in its relationship to its neighbors, the Administration will be forced to roll back subsidies soon.

The main road from Hasakah to Raqqa, now mostly gravel and potholes after the Administration ran out of funds to repave it late last year. Picture by author.

Improving U.S. Policy Outcomes

Throughout all of this, the U.S. and coalition forces retain a limited presence in the northeast, purportedly focused singularly on “countering ISIS.” Yet, as proven time and again over the past 20 years of the global war on terror, military efforts alone are not enough to defeat an entrenched insurgency. Economic and governance support to the northeast is crucial for building a unified front against ISIS and preventing the terrorist group’s infiltration into at-risk communities.

Basic steps, such as enabling the northeast to export oil through Iraq, and providing financial and logistical support for basic services and non-military employment opportunities will not only limit ISIS’s reach within local communities, but help create a sustainable governing authority in the northeast that can stand without long-term U.S. support.

Most of the jobs in Raqqa and Deir Ez Zor prior to 2011 revolved around the agricultural sector. But war and drought have devastated this industry, and economic hardship has left locals unable to modernize their irrigation systems to more efficiently use their limited water supply. “We need plastic pipes with modern sprinklers for irrigation,” says Hassan, the farmer, “and access to loans and financing for agricultural projects might help encourage young people in agriculture to get away from ISIS.” Shadi* echoes this, arguing that the region “needs widespread projects supporting all farmers, like providing fertilizer and seeds and diesel and increasing the payment for crops. Without this the agricultural sector will not recover and will become worse every year.”

Technical and material support from outside Syria is crucial for rebuilding Syria’s breadbasket. Such aid must be distributed at the local level, with U.S. and other western organizations working directly with constituencies the support is meant to help. This will both maximize the impact of aid programs, as well as strengthen the relationship between the U.S.-led coalition and Arab communities in Raqqa and Deir Ez Zor. Many Arabs there perceive the coalition as being an ally only to the Kurds and feel alienated from both the SDF and the coalition. Despite this, civilians in Raqqa routinely request the coalition return to the governorate, which it abandoned in late 2019. Improved relationships between Arab civilians and the coalition would also make it much easier for security forces to gather accurate intelligence on ISIS operations.

It is important to recognize that this enhancement of current policies can remain within the existing counter-ISIS mandate. Deeping the Coalition’s counter-insurgency policies to include non-military aspects of instability will help ensure that the counter-ISIS mission addresses the social and economic, not just military, aspects of ISIS’s insurgency. Poverty and unemployment are key risk factors for ISIS recruitment, and properly dispersed financial aid from western organizations will help stabilize the rapidly collapsing economy in the northeast.

According to local researchers, economic hardships have also led to an increase in the number of smuggling routes between the northeast and central Syria and Iraq. ISIS cells rely heavily on these civilian and commercial smuggling networks to move men and supplies between its fighting fronts, but, according to the SDF’s own commanders, the security forces remain powerless to shut them down. The only way to reduce smuggling, and thus hamper ISIS’s freedom of movement, is to rebuild the economy. Therefore, smart, targeted assistance and development programs form the bedrock of any effective long-term anti-ISIS policy.

Everyone this author spoke to this fall talked about the recent mass flight of young men from the northeast looking for a better future. Shadi* warns that the economic situation is so bad now that, “If the road to Europe became easier you would see only 10 percent of young men remain here.” Hassan left Raqqa at the end of September, smuggling himself and his family into Turkey. He fears a sudden U.S. withdrawal from the country and the inevitable return of ISIS it would precipitate, but also cited the deteriorating economic and education situation. His final decision to leave came after his 11-year-old son showed him the footage of Afghan civilians hanging from a plane during the evacuation of Kabul. “He said, ‘Dad if ISIS comes back there won’t be a place for you on the flight either.’” Hassan now faces a difficult choice, remaining in Turkey as an illegal refugee or “returning to Raqqa, where my children will have no future.”

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