Endless supplies of cigarettes, a BMW or Mercedes for between $4,000 and $6,000 but fuel at vastly inflated prices — the black market is thriving on the Syria-Turkey border.
“It is all legal,” insists Abu Ahmad, once a grocer in Syria’s war-ravaged city of Aleppo who is now dealing in motor vehicles in the rebel-held town of Aazaz near the frontier.
“The vehicles come from Switzerland, where my brother is a second hand car dealer,” Abu Ahmad says.
“They arrive in Syria legally,” he says, along with shipments of blankets, food and medicines for Syrians who have taken refuge from the country’s civil war in camps along the Turkish border.
Abu Mohammad Faid, who turns up at Abu Ahmad’s car lot with two cousins, opts for an immaculate black BMW.
“Before the war, the only cars we could buy were those manufactured in China, Russia or Korea,” he says. “In peacetime, a car such as this would cost about $15,000, and on top of that we had to pay $1,000 in taxes.”
Rebels of the Free Syrian Army also count among Abu Ahmad’s customers.
Abu Tareq, captain of the FSA’s Al-Faruq brigade, says he chose “three vehicles to transport our fighters between Idlib and Aleppo (provinces).”
Business, however, is far from brisk, admits Abu Ahmad.
“Few people come to buy cars. Many do not even have money for food,” he says. “Mostly we sell the cars to the rebels — and we have to offer them at a special price, otherwise we will have to give the vehicles to them.”
Business is distinctly better for Abu Ismail and his brother Hamid, who have set up a fuel depot in an abandoned building. In this region where the winter can be harsh, heating takes priority.
“We get diesel and petrol on the black market at Hama and Arraka where there is no shortage,” says Abu Ismail, referring to areas under the control of Syria’s army.
“The smugglers buy it from the regime and we sell it at a much higher price. Since the arrival of the cold, people have been using their oil stoves. Our supplies move very quickly,” says the entrepreneur, who before the Syrian conflict erupted 21 months ago was studying Arab literature.
A man who gives his name only as Mustafa arrives with his son to buy a small quantity of oil, which today is going at 65 Syrian pounds (95 cents) per litre.
“In the past we used diesel but it is now very expensive. We are using oil even if it is not good (for the health) of the children,” says Mustafa. “To die from the cold is much worse.”
The conflict, in which an estimated 45,000 people have died and which has sent hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing into neighbouring countries, has substantially affected the cost of living in rebel-held areas.
“Before the war a litre of diesel cost around 20 pounds (28 cents), but right now it is selling at 200 pounds ($2.81). And petrol, which used to cost 45 pounds (63 cents), is today selling at 250 pounds ($3.52) a litre,” says Abu Ismail.
Those who can’t afford to buy fuel “are burning olive branches for heating,” he adds grimly.
But many are still willing to pay the higher prices to fend off the biting cold of the winter.
“We easily make a profit of $20 per barrel,” of diesel, says Abu Ismail’s brother Hamid. “The cold is very good for business” even if the FSA charges 100 pounds ($1.40) “revolutionary tax” per barrel.
Cigarettes, meanwhile, are plentiful, sourced from the Banns al-Nera sector of the northern city of Aleppo, which has been the theatre of an intense standoff between rebel fighters and regime troops since mid-July, with neither side able to gain the upper hand.
“Many people have lost their jobs since the beginning of war and are selling cigarettes,” says Abu Assad, a trader in tobacco products for the past 12 years.
“We buy cigarettes in Iraq, we have our suppliers. They are 10 percent cheaper than cigarettes bought in Syria or in Turkey,” he says.
But with cash in short supply and many other traders trying to eke out a living in Aazaz, his returns these days amount to little more than three dollars a week — barely enough to provide for his family.