Turkish offensive on Afrin cuts fuel supply for more than 2 million residents in rebel-held northwest

Fuel trucks travel between Afrin and Darat Izza in May 2016. Photo courtesy of Thiqa Agency

AMMAN: The price of fuel doubled this week in Syria’s rebel-held northwest as ongoing fighting disrupts trade routes, while more than two million residents burn through their stockpiles and buy up whatever they can of the dwindling fuel supply, residents and local government officials told Syria Direct.

Residents, hospitals and industrial bakeries are dipping into their reserves of mazot, a cheap form of diesel, to keep electricity and heat running after Turkey and allied Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels began an air and ground assault on Kurdish-controlled Afrin, a waystation in the trade route that supplied opposition territories in the northwest with fuel.

The Turkish Armed Forces began launching artillery fire and airstrikes on positions of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin and its surrounding countryside on Saturday, while Ankara-supported rebel factions stormed YPG-controlled territory along several axes.

The aim of the offensive, dubbed “Operation Olive Branch,” is “eliminating terrorists” along Turkey’s southern border with Syria, Turkish state-run Anadolu Agency reported on Saturday. Ankara considers the YPG a terrorist organization due to its ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, with which Ankara has been embroiled in an internal conflict for decades.

“We will repel these Turkish attacks no matter the cost, and we will not kneel to aggression,” read a YPG statement released on January 22 in response to the Ankara-backed offensive.


Fuel trucks travel between Afrin and Darat Izza in May 2016. Photo courtesy of Thiqa Agency

Residents and a local government official in the rebel-held northwest told Syria Direct this week that they are already feeling the wide-reaching impact of Turkey’s latest incursion into Syria after witnessing a rapid spike in fuel costs.

“Fuel is the backbone of life in Idlib city,” Ismael al-Andani, former president of the Idlib City Council, told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

“We rely on it for electrical generators, transportation, machinery and bakeries,” al-Andani said, adding that “our fear is that this closure will last for long time.”

Al-Andani served as the president of the city council until it was dissolved by the Syrian Salvation Government at the end of 2017. The Salvation Government formed in November 2017 and has consolidated control over civil institutions in Idlib province since then with the backing of hardline Islamist coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham.

Trucks carrying mazot and butane gas began to detour through the Afrin countryside in February 2016 after a Syrian Arab Army offensive closed off the main road linking the rebel-held northwest with the country’s oil-rich east, Syria Direct reported at the time.

Drivers traversing the new, longer route transported fuel from the oil and natural gas fields of Hasakah and Deir e-Zor provinces through Afrin to more than two million residents in western Aleppo, Idlib and northern Hama provinces

But the commercial road that runs through Afrin—the only reliable source of fuel for the rebel-held northwest—ground to a halt with the start of “Operation Olive Branch” on Saturday.

With no fuel deliveries entering the northwest rebel territories, traders and vendors are pushing up prices in response to the limited supply, Abu Saleem Simaan, a truck driver who transported fuels from Afrin to the Idlib city prior to this week, told Syria Direct.

The price of a barrel of mazot rose from SP40,000 ($77) to SP75,000 ($145) in the span of five days, said Simaan, who lives in Idlib city with his wife and three children. “If the situation continues as is, the price will just keep on increasing.”

Before the trade route closed, Simaan regularly traveled 80 kilometers north of his home in Idlib city to Afrin in the northern Aleppo countryside. At a crossing between YPG-controlled Afrin and Azaz, a nearby city controlled by Turkish-backed rebels, he loaded his truck with barrels of mazot and tanks of butane.

Simaan then drove across Afrin and entered the rebel-held city of Darat Izza in western Aleppo province through a YPG-controlled crossing. From western Aleppo, Simaan and other drivers then transported fuels to gas stations, hospitals and industrial bakeries across rebel territories in Idlib and northern Hama.

But now Azaz is one of several fronts that Ankara-backed rebels opened up this week as part of the offensive against the YPG, blocking off the flow of diesel trucks from the east.

A member of the Afrin Executive Council, who asked that his name not be published, confirmed that crossings in and out of Afrin are also closed from the YPG-controlled side this week, but blamed Turkish-backed FSA rebels for the disruption of trade routes.

“We did not block off the road. Euphrates Shield did,” the executive council member told Syria Direct, referring to the Ankara-supported factions using the name of their previous offensive in northern Aleppo.

“Euphrates Shield, which is assaulting Afrin from the Azaz front, is the one that has turned the region into a military zone and cut off the roads,” he added.

‘We bear the loss’

The immediate impacts of the derailed fuel route for residents of the opposition-held northwest are higher costs and limited availability of mazot and butane for heating.

Mansour Abu Turki, an east Aleppo native now living in the northern Idlib town of a-Dana, says he was shocked to see how quickly prices rose. The 47-year-old went to a nearby gas station to buy mazot at the start of the week for the space heaters in the home where he, his wife and five children live. He had bought a few liters of fuel just three days earlier.

“I’m not a wealthy man, so I can only buy a little at a time,” Abu Turki, who works as a plumber, told Syria Direct on Tuesday. The father of five bought what he could afford after seeing the steep spike in prices: ten liters of mazot.

“When I returned home, we began to burn old clothing and shoes for heat,” said Abu Turki. “In this war, we are the ones who bear the loss.”

Abu Ziad, an Idlib city resident, told Syria Direct that he is feeling the impact of the disrupted trade route twice over because his only source of income is from his servees, a taxi with a pre-fixed route.

“Now, I have two issues: getting mazot to keep my kids warm and for my [servees] van,” said the 34-year-old.

“Where are people going to find SP75,000 [$145] for a barrel of mazot on top of money for rent?” said Abu Ziad. “My kids are bundled up under their covers because it’s freezing outside.”