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HTS formally bans and informally permits tobacco in Syria’s northwest

IDLIB, Syria (North Press) – The 35-year-old Mustafa Kamel (pseudonym), an IDP in the city of Idlib, northwest Syria, heads to the northern countryside of Aleppo every day, in order to smuggle tobacco, which is banned by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, formerly al-Nusra Front) in their areas of control under the pretext of prohibition.

Every time, Kamel loads limited types of tobacco on his motorbike and this facilitates the smuggling process without being inspected on al-Ghazawiya crossing between areas of Euphrates Shield (Turkish-backed factions-held areas in Aleppo northeastern countryside) and those of HTS.

As a result of the ban on the entry of tobacco through crossings by HTS, price of different types of tobacco has increased in a time when the HTS imposes big amounts of money on trucks coming through smuggling routes, according to traders.

Bribes 

Kamel described his job as “a good opportunity,” after he was an unemployed.

He pointed out that he sometimes made benefits of about $2 for each box of cigarettes as he makes about 150 Turkish lira per day (about $17).  

He distributes the smuggled boxes of cigarettes secretly to shops in Idlib.

Meanwhile, residents of Idlib are complaining that HTS, through their security apparatuses, is tightening the screw on them by imposing their rulings, ideas, and religious beliefs.

As they resemble the HTS’ intervening in their life’s details to those of the Islamic State (ISIS).

Some HTS officials supervise the process of entering cigarettes through smugglers making enormous benefits by taking thousands of dollars as taxes on the quantities entered, according to Kamel and smugglers.

“As a result of these royalties, price of all types of cigarettes boxes in the Idlib regions has increased,” he added.

Smuggling processes are being carried out either through al-Ghazawiya crossing which is held by HTS in the western countryside of Aleppo, or through lands that link between the two areas, according to smugglers and smoke traders.

The 35-year-old Ra’id al-Debibi (pseudonym), cigarettes’ trader in Idlib, told North Press that he pays big amounts of money to HTS officials, who work in trade, in exchange for not blocking trucks loaded with different types of cigarettes that enter through al-Ghazawiya crossing.

“Thousands of cigarettes’ boxes enter through the crossing, where those who facilitate them to pass into HTS-held areas, get $2 for each box,” he pointed out.  

Similar smuggling processes take place in coordination with guarding posts on the frontlines between areas in the northern countryside of Aleppo and Idlib, according to al-Debibi.

“A post takes, at least, $100 US dollar for each shipment via an agriculture vehicle,” al- Debibi said.   

Thousands of dollars

Al-Debibi was forced to pay $4,000 to the HTS as a result of being arrested while he was smuggling a quantity of cigarettes on his car without a deal with HTS officials.  

The young man, who was arrested for 15 days in prisons of Salvation Government, the HTS’ civil wing, paid the money in turn for releasing him and the return of his confiscated car.

Several types of exported cigarettes spread in the city of Idlib and its countryside and each cigarette pack is sold at between four and six Turkish liras (about $1.5) according to its type and quality.

Meanwhile, each kilo of tobacco is about 250 Turkish lira (about $28).  

The 28-year-old Karam al-Shawwaf (pseudonym), an IDP in the city of Sarmada, north of Idlib, was forced to tolerate difficulties of travel to areas of the Euphrates Shield in order to secure quantities of cigarettes and shisha tobacco for himself because their price has doubled.   

Each cigarette pack reached six Turkish liras after it used to be at half of the price, the young man said.

Reporting by Samir Awad

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