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The Saints and Smugglers of Syria’s Civil War

The Saints and Smugglers of Syria’s Civil War

For a brief moment in late 2013, it looked as if a small group of Syrian expatriates in the United Arab Emirates had outfoxed Bashar al-Assad. By day, they were businessmen and bureaucrats, working as middle managers, professors, and salesmen. In every moment they could spare — nights, weekends, lunches, and cigarette breaks — they and dozens more like them in the capital of Abu Dhabi devoted themselves to supporting an uprising in a homeland they left long ago.

Two years into the revolt, opposition supporters inside Syria had self-organized into coordination committees, or tansiqiyas. In villages and neighborhoods, the citizen groups called for demonstrations, organized civil defense, and shared information on social media. Soon, a revolution that began with unarmed demonstrators quickly grew in need of an ever-expanding list of equipment: Samsung cell phones, better cameras, satellite phones. As early as the summer of 2011, when the regime first cracked down on protests, the opposition needed medicine.

The first place activists turned was overseas; some 10 million Syrians already lived abroad by 2011. Many members of the diaspora were longtime opponents of the Syrian regime; a few had made fortunes for themselves. And just as spontaneously as the local uprising had organized, the diaspora began to coalesce into their own tansiqiyas — in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Kuwait City, Doha, Jeddah, and elsewhere. Like so many of the first activists in 2011, many in the Syrian diaspora saw the initial uprising as a singular chance for a different kind of Syria. Mostly of an older generation, they watched, awestruck — even embarrassed — by how young people stood up to the regime they had run from. But while those who fled Syria hadn’t fought Assad and his soldiers back then, they could do so now using a weapon few inside the country could wield: money.

Their story is one of the Syrian conflict’s most invisible — and most important. The diaspora crowdfunded the early days of the uprising, kept activists and families sustained as times got rough, and sent vital remittances to breathe life into a destitute state. At times, they dabbled in weapons; they formed key links between regional governments and militias on the ground. It is unlikely we will ever know exactly how much money the Syrian diaspora poured into fighting the Assad regime. No accounting exists of its hundreds of decentralized networks spread across dozens of countries. But one thing is clear: Four years into a bloody civil war, the only reason that many in the country are still fighting — and surviving — is because of money and assistance provided by those who fled decades ago.

Yet what had begun as an exercise in hope soon became a daily reminder of Syria’s brutal reality. By late 2012 and 2013, the diaspora had learned how to send activists phones and supplies; they had grown adept at navigating checkpoints to move medicine and flour into besieged areas. They paid soldiers, rebels, middlemen, and militias to ensure their goods reached civilians trapped in one corner of the war or another. It was delicate work, as would soon become painfully clear.

But first came the success. In late 2013, the Abu Dhabi tansiqiya broke one of the Syrian military’s most notorious blockades, sending relief supplies into the besieged area of Yarmouk, just outside of Damascus. It was the most daring operation the expats had ever attempted. And it was where the diaspora’s stubborn naivety about the conflict was finally shattered. An effort that had started as humanitarian aid had become entangled in the war economy. Those struggling in Syria were no longer battling only for the future of their country; millions of dollars were at play, and the opportunities for greed, envy, and violence were endless. 

In August 2013, the Assad government unleashed rockets filled with sarin gas on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, killing nearly 1,500 people, including more than 400 children. The chemical weapons attack violated a “red line” drawn by President Barack Obama and prompted Washington to prepare for airstrikes on the regime. But when Russia promised to help broker a deal to remove all of Syria’s chemical weapons from the country, the West backed down on military action. On the ground, many activists feared a dangerous precedent had been set: Assad could cross every threshold of humanity without consequence.

Yarmouk was the most searing example of the impunity with which Assad operated in the months that followed. In the fall of 2013, the Syrian government put the Palestinian refugee camp, a thriving suburb just miles from central Damascus, under siege. Syrian rebels had started using the neighborhood as a base to slip into the capital. With more than 150,000 people packed into a single square mile, it was easy to hide from the security forces — especially since a growing number of the residents were becoming sympathetic to the rebel cause.

The Assad regime moved to crush its enemies in Yarmouk. The army set up a ring around the camp, preventing tens of thousands of remaining residents from leaving and stopping others from going in. Soon, Yarmouk began to starve.

At first, it seemed the blockade would last just a few days — but it soon became clear that the troops were there to stay. Local clerics issued fatwas so that cats and dogs could be cooked to eat. Families chewed on grass or boiled it in water. By January 2014, at least 50 people had died from a lack of food and medicine.

One of the most determined expats was an agricultural equipment salesman named Mezyan al-Barazi, 63, who had lived in the UAE for more than a decade. Bald, muscular, and with a sternness on his lips, he had none of the usual messiness in his posture that comes with age. During his first decade living in Abu Dhabi, Barazi had done everything he could to forget the homeland that had betrayed him so many times. The Syrian regime had stalled his education, bankrupted his business, and harassed his relatives. But after the civil war broke out in 2011, it was all he could do to remember — as best he could — the Syria he still deeply loved. He was nostalgic for the people, the food, the music, and the winding streets.

When the Yarmouk siege began, Barazi reached out to a member of a charity run by Syrian doctors living abroad, called Alseeraj for Development and Healthcare. Hospitals and medical personnel had been targeted by the Syrian government, and Alseeraj tried to fill the gap, smuggling in some 50 health workers to field hospitals, garages, and basements. Several of the doctors working with the charity had attended events in Abu Dhabi hosted by Barazi’s tansiqiya and shared harrowing stories from their mission.

Beyond its bravery and access, Alseeraj had resources. In January 2014, the group posted a photo of its December budget allotment on Facebook, reaching a total of $263,400. Indeed, the group had found donor support among some of Syria’s most prominent exiles, including two of the richest Syrian men in Doha: brothers Moataz and Ramez al-Khayyat, whose construction firm, UrbaCon Trading and Contracting, had won contracts including to build facilities for the 2022 World Cup.

Barazi’s contact in Alseeraj said the group could smuggle supplies through the blockade by bribing regime soldiers to look the other way. At first, the operation seemed to have been a success: Barazi confirmed that small amounts of supplies had reached their destination. But soon, friends and family members began to complain, claiming that Barazi’s intermediary in Yarmouk was mishandling the aid. He had made a preferential list of beneficiaries, they said, and was delivering help only to them, with little regard to actual need.

In the meantime, word got around of Barazi’s success at running the blockade. Others in the diaspora began to harass him, asking him to put them in touch with his intermediary. The inquiries grew strangely aggressive. Previously, he would have simply assumed that his fellow exiles wanted to send aid through the intermediary as well. Now, though, he was sure something else was going on. Did rivals wish to steal the aid? Or the money?

A few days later, Barazi’s phone buzzed with a message. It was a photo of the intermediary in Yarmouk, dead. There was nothing else — no explanation, no context. Since the beginning of the conflict, Barazi had seen plenty of pictures of the dead. But this was the first time that death had struck someone because of the work he was doing.

For weeks, Barazi struggled with the implications of what had happened. His contact’s death forced him to confront the growing ambiguities of the Syrian conflict: Had the murder been a warning from the regime to those trying to break the siege? Had it been carried out by corrupt aid groups or businessmen seeking a monopoly on supplies going into Yarmouk? Or was it an accident?

One day several weeks later, Barazi pulled out his phone and flipped through his pictures until he found a picture of the dead man from happier times. When it was taken, the man was just 43 years old. He wore his brown hair artfully disheveled. Barazi kept the picture on his phone as a reminder that death could strike from any direction.

The consequences of reaching out to the wrong person at the wrong time had become horrifically clear — but not doing so seemed worse. On Jan. 17, 2014, Barazi posted an account from inside the blockade on his Facebook wall. “I asked my [friend] in the besieged camp Al Yarmouk yesterday: ‘Did you get any assistance?’ ‘We got a barrel [bomb] that resulted in eight martyrs and 20 wounded,’ he replied.” Barazi’s next post was directed at Assad: “Damn your soul,” he wrote.

Barazi and the Abu Dhabi tansiqiya didn’t stop their efforts after Yarmouk; instead, they refined them. A few weeks later, Barazi asked a handful of Syrians involved in the aid effort to meet in Dubai to walk through their supply chain. They gathered at the home of an expatriate named Roula, whose villa garage had become their collection point for flour, winter clothes, and other goods. Pulling up a spreadsheet, the middle-aged schoolteacher relayed the latest news from inside Syria: A displaced persons camp needed women’s sanitary supplies and diapers. Medicine was constantly in demand.

The expatriates reviewed the steps of their operation, now a full-fledged exercise in logistics. Once Roula’s garage was full, goods were moved to a warehouse in Sharjah, provided free by a Syrian trader in Dubai; renting the facility privately would have cost the group more than 100,000 dirham ($27,230) per month. From Sharjah, the goods were loaded onto a container that traveled by sea alongside private commercial shipments to Turkey, where it was offloaded onto trucks heading toward Syria. Moving a container from Dubai to the Syrian border cost Barazi and his associates about $5,500 — a sum covered by anonymous expatriate donors.

At the beginning of the revolution, volunteers in Syria were able to collect the donations at the border. But as the conflict sharpened, each shipment required a round of intelligence work. Contacts were called in order to find out which roads were safe to travel on and which armed group controlled each stage of the route the goods would have to take.

Indeed, over the next six months, Barazi’s tansiqiya would find that violence increasingly defined their work. Each time they put together a shipment of food or medicine or clothes, the group had to check and double-check who, if anyone, was left to receive it inside Syria. Then, as their goods traversed the route, Barazi and his friends tracked their progress. Each time they changed hands, a contact would send a message on WhatsApp or post a photo on Instagram. On his computer and Samsung smartphone, Barazi kept video clips of boxes of gloves, blood bags, basic medical supplies, flour, sugar, diapers, and clothing — proof that the goods he had sent had reached their destination safely, away from the hands of armed groups.

One container had been ready to ship in November 2014 when Syrian government planes bombed its destination, the small western town of Morek. The residents fled down the road, joining other displaced Syrians in a squalid makeshift camp — but even as Barazi was preparing to redirect the shipment, the planes struck again, killing 52 women and children who had survived the destruction of their village. The aid intended for the village sat in a warehouse in Dubai, in need of a new recipient. Their contacts in Morek had all perished or dispersed.

Getting cash to family and friends, meanwhile, had become nearly impossible. In order to limit the risks of terrorist financing, the UAE gradually shut down most money-wiring services to Syria beginning in 2013. One exchange house still conducted transactions, but sending money was risky. The Syrian government monitored the remittance agencies in Syria for transactions that might indicate the recipient was an opposition liaison. In order to avoid detection, donations had to be split into dozens of smaller transfers and sent indirectly via people in cities and towns surrounding the final destination.

Businessmen could serve as unofficial brokers, but that was costly and difficult to arrange. “There are people fleeing the country, and they want to get their money out [of Syria],” explains Rani, an expat involved in a tansiqiya in Dubai. “We say, ‘We’ll give you money here [in the UAE],’ and they release the [equivalent amount of] money inside.” Convincing businessmen in Syria to take part usually required a huge commission — not to mention the exchange rate loss to expatriates from buying Syria’s plunging currency.

As sending aid got harder, Barazi’s family in Syria became more dependent on him for survival. Some 24 members of his extended family have died fighting the regime since the beginning of the conflict — and today, their sons, daughters, wives, and mothers turn to him as a lifeline, fleeing in planes or buses he pays for to housing he arranges. A sister-in-law lives in an apartment he owns in central Damascus, a vestige from better days. Armed men recently came knocking on the door, demanding that she leave. Through a lawyer in Damascus, Barazi was able to forestall her eviction — but for how long, he can never be sure. “At any moment, they are waiting to take her,” he says.

Amid it all, Abu Dhabi’s tansiqiya is expanding as the existing diaspora absorbs hundreds of thousands more Syrians. In the UAE alone, expats estimate that some 100,000 Syrians have recently arrived. Some of the tansiqiya’s aid is now focused inward, supporting the parents, sisters, nieces, and nephews who have arrived to the Gulf on visit visas without work.

Unlike the middle-class businessmen who fled decades ago, the new arrivals are often destitute — and increasingly dependent on their more established relatives and friends. “Each one of us here is sustaining 50 people,” says Abu Akhram, a member of the Abu Dhabi group. “The diaspora has been able to help the people and the revolution to survive.”

Elizabeth Dickinson is author of the new Kindle Single Godfathers and Thieves: How Syria’s Diaspora Crowd-Sourced a Revolution” for Deca, from which this excerpt is adapted.

Photo credit: Rami El Seyid/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images