‘None of this is free’: Syria’s government is profiting from a ‘huge extortion racket’ in the areas it has besieged

Deir ezzor refugee
A Syrian refugee from Deir ez-Zor breastfeeds her child following their arrival on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing a part of the Aegean Sea from the Turkish coast, September 29, 2015. Dimitris Michalakis

Extortion and profiteering by regional Syrian officials have created untenable conditions for thousands of Syrians living under siege.

As civilians attempt to escape the high prices of basic goods in besieged cities, officials double down by demanding fees, tolls, and bribes as a condition for exit, according to a new report by Buzzfeed News.

Deir Ezzor is technically controlled by Syrian government forces, but it has been under siege by the Islamic State for over a year.

One family told Buzzfeed that, to escape the city, they had to pay a fee of about $1,300 per person to Syrian commanders at one checkpoint, and then repeat the process at the next.

“You have to claim that your relative is dying,” Sara Khaled told Buzzfeed, “… so they feel sorry for you and give you permission to leave. But none of this is free.”

The price to flee the city has more than doubled from roughly $2,000 to over $4,500 per person since last summer, according to the report. Citizens of Deir Ezzor claim that the same officials who charge the exit fees are also raising prices for basic goods internally, spurring people to flee.

Reports that the Islamic State has been stealing aid intended for Syrians may not come as a surprise, but residents of Deir Ezzor claim that the military and government have also been stealing airdropped aid shipments and then selling them at a markup. These claims corroborate similar claims accounts by the Associated Press in January.

Prices for non-aid items have also risen dramatically as vendors in the regime-controlled areas are forced to pay bribes to bring in goods. As a result, many goods are cheaper in ISIS-controlled sections of Deir Ezzor: a pound of sugar costs 50 cents under ISIS rule compared to $10 under besieged regime control.

Isis oil plant airstrike

Incredibly, an escaped citizen of Deir Ezzor’s regime-controlled section told the Associated Press that his father had suggested life would be better under ISIS.

“My beard is long now, and my stomach is empty. Let [the militants] in if it is going to let food into the city,” the man said, quoting his father, whom he had to leave behind.

Still, life under ISIS comes with its own brand of extortion. Coalition forces have been aggressively targeting ISIS’ oil in order to cut off the major revenue source, possibly contributing to increased taxation efforts.

Militants work to create a semblance of legitimate statehood, protection, and civil service in order to justify taxation, but the taxes are also backed by the threat of brutality. “If I do not [pay],” an ice cream truck driver operating in Iraq told The New York Times, “they either arrest me or burn my truck.”

The Syrian government has recently, at therequest of the UN, begun allowing aid into the besieged town of Madaya. But humanitarian organisations arrived there to find conditionsdemanding much more than they could offer.

“The amount of items that have arrived on these trucks are too little and will not be enough to last long,” a local committee leader in Madaya told Al Jazeera. “This is a joke.” As of early February, residents of Madaya have once again resorted to starvation tactics: eating grass and rationing what little aid remains.

Now, the crisis threatens to extend to the embattled city of Aleppo, which is being encircled by pro-regime forces backed by Russian airstrikes. Earlier this week, the UN warned that 300,000 people in Aleppo may be at risk of losing access to humanitarian aid.

Read the full report at Buzzfeed >>

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