"The Fourth Division? Simply put, it has evolved over the years of war into a joint-stock company with sovereign privileges, essentially becoming a vital player in the Syrian people's livelihood. It has taken on an increasingly extensive role as the enforcer of tariffs, even going as far as to impose tariffs in an organized fashion, even over items as mundane as screws passing through its checkpoints," says one Syrian merchant in conversation with Raseef22, opting not to disclose his name for well-known reasons.
He goes on to indicate that "casually mentioning the Fourth Division in everyday conversations is no longer prohibited, as long as it doesn't spill over into social media platforms, for instance." He adds, "It's common knowledge what the entire country has endured due to their policy of enforced taxation, systematically administered via their security apparatus that wields control over the economy through checkpoints dotting every corner of Syria. Its management and supervision were entrusted to a civilian figure close to the decision-making authority, and this individual lacks any economic or political background, aside from the fact that he was an ordinary person in his village on the eve of the war. And this isn't a mere jest; it's a stark reality."
What's behind the decision
Syrian authorities recently issued a decision to dismantle the Fourth Division's checkpoints from main and secondary roads, repositioning them closer to the borders following a reduction in their numbers. It's worth noting that such a directive isn't typically formalized in writing but rather conveyed verbally following an agreement with the division itself. The ultimate source of such decisions is generally the National Security Bureau, the body responsible in practice for Syria's internal and external affairs—be it in the political, economic, security, or even military and societal domains.
"Everyone knows what the country has endured due to the group's policy of enforced taxation, systematically administered via their security apparatus that wields control over the economy through checkpoints dotting every corner of Syria".. So what's happening?
A source with insights into the background of the decision explains to Raseef22, "The move to dismantle these checkpoints was taken hastily, even though it had been discussed on several prior occasions. Yet, none of those deliberations culminated in an actual decision to remove them. The decision was, in fact, made late last August, with the relevant security and military authorities subsequently informed."
Per the source, "Implementation commenced immediately, kicking off with the removal of the checkpoint at Al-Saan along the Tartous-Latakia international route, followed by the elimination of the checkpoint at Hisyah along the Damascus-Homs international highway. Simultaneously, all Fourth Division checkpoints were withdrawn from the region between Al-Qusayr and the Shinshar intersection near Homs—a distance of just a few kilometers. The division will maintain a solitary checkpoint there, facing the Lebanese border, for reasons that were agreed upon in advance, which are context-related and pertain to smuggling, whether related to people, weapons, or drugs."
Our source elaborates, "The decision to dismantle the checkpoints and reposition some closer to the border or quasi-border zones constituted a part of several measures aiming to reform the living and economic conditions for the populace. With mounting discontent over these checkpoints, particularly in light of ongoing developments in Al-Suwayda, it appears to be an attempt to quell the rising wave of public outrage."
The source elaborates that the "policy of removal is an ongoing process and has not yet been completed," noting that there's an issue being addressed concerning roadblocks between Damascus and Lebanon along the border crossing, which is a highly sensitive area and poses multifaceted threats. This is because the Fourth Division had accumulated significant experience over the years in dealing with various situations."
Furthermore, checkpoints have been relocated: the eastern Homs checkpoint has been shifted towards the Badiyah gate, the Hama checkpoint now on the road towards Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, and the Tel entrance checkpoint in the Damascus countryside has been redirected to the border entrance with Iraq from the side of the capital.
From bullets to cash collection
Syrians are well aware of the history of the Fourth Division. It originated from the remnants of the Defense Brigades, led by Rifaat al-Assad, the brother of Hafez al-Assad. After Rifaat was expelled from Syria following his attempted coup against his brother in the 1980s, the division was restructured and renamed the Republican Guard Elite of the Syrian Army, operating alongside the Republican Guard. For years, the division received substantial financial and military support until the Syrian crisis began.
During the years of conflict, several reports indicated Russia's unease with the Fourth Division. This was perhaps exemplified by Russia's establishment of the Fifth Assault Corps, headquartered in Hama, rather than reinforcing the Fourth Division. In contrast, Iran's extensive support for the division became less clandestine. A clear illustration of this is the Israeli airstrikes that repeatedly targeted facilities within the Fourth Division, where Iranian leadership, Hezbollah members, and Syrian officers held meetings.
The Syrian government's possession of numerical combat density, after the withdrawal of frontlines and the entrance of multiple forces on its side, allowed the Fourth Division to operate with more comfort and fewer responsibilities. As people describe it, this enabled them to "take their money." The division has long been associated with Bashar al-Assad's brother, Maher al-Assad, who currently leads it.
Throughout the war, the Fourth Division began to admit a substantial number of civilians into its ranks. Observers argue that this move eroded its once-ironclad organizational structure, resulting in a decline in the division's military achievements. This transformation also primed the division for a new role, one that became increasingly evident in the post-"Makhlouf era." The term "Makhlouf era" refers to Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of the Syrian President, who held significant economic power in Syria for decades until he was sidelined under unclear circumstances, leading to severe economic consequences.
"A while back, I paid an intermediary closely affiliated with the Fourth Division a hefty sum of $8,000 for the right to pass through a road once daily with a vehicle. It was stipulated that I would pay a monthly fee of 7 million Syrian pounds"
Many Syrians believe that Makhlouf's exclusion marked the beginning of a deepening economic catastrophe. This perception is exacerbated by the fact that this change coincided with the implementation of the Caesar Act sanctions against Syria in late 2019. From an economic standpoint, Makhlouf had managed to maintain a relatively stable exchange rate during the years of conflict compared to the turmoil that followed. People were astounded by the replacement of a "cunning thief" with newcomers who effectively dismantled what little was left of the country's economy.
Interestingly, none of the individuals who took control of the country's economy possessed prior economic expertise. They were picked in one way or another by the Fourth Division, which utilized its network of checkpoints to extract resources from the economy. However, this financial extraction was enforced under the guise of "taxation". Regrettably, this taxation didn't contribute positively to the economy. Prominent figures in this scenario include Khoder Al-Taher, known as Abu Ali Khoder, who operates directly under the Fourth Division, as well as Samer Fawz and Yassar Ibrahim, who are closely associated with "the palace", referring to the presidential palace.
An illustrative example of this taxation is the mobile phones customs law, which results in a phone that costs a mere thousand dollars in a neighboring country like Lebanon, for instance, to be inflated to around 2,500 dollars to operate on the Syrian network. A similar scenario unfolds with gas canisters, which cross into Syria from Lebanon at smuggling prices of around 100,000 Syrian pounds (approximately 7 dollars) but are retailed within Syria for prices ranging from 250,000 to 300,000 Syrian pounds. This pattern repeats with diesel, gasoline, oil, consumer goods, electrical appliances, and virtually every imaginable product. In essence, it becomes evident that the Fourth Division does not oppose smuggling. In fact, it thrives on it, albeit as the designated conduit.
Raseef22 managed to connect with an individual who managed to negotiate the purchase of one of the roads between Lebanon's borders and a nearby Syrian governorate. Contacting and speaking to this source was a little challenging, given the extreme sensitivity of the matter. However, after some persuasion, he finally agreed to share his insights on the condition of complete anonymity.
He explains, "A while back, I paid an intermediary closely linked to the Fourth Division a hefty sum of $8,000 for the right to pass through a road once daily with a vehicle. It was stipulated that I would pay a monthly fee of 7 million Syrian pounds. Naturally, my vehicle would be transporting electrical appliances. In this arrangement, I managed to evade the tolls imposed by the roadblocks. Yet, the more significant concern is that my entire vehicle could be confiscated if I had not bought the road pass."
He adds, "Certainly, these vehicles undergo inspections. If anything is discovered that doesn't align with our agreement, it will be seized, and I'll face fines, potentially coupled with imprisonment. Many individuals partake in such transactions, finding them remarkably profitable despite the associated costs. This is mainly due to the substantial price disparity between Syria and Lebanon."
However, the luck of this individual was short-lived. Only a few weeks passed before the Fourth Division removed its roadblocks, rendering the money spent effectively unrecoverable. He laments, "If I were to say anything, I'd be in grave jeopardy. I'll leave it up to God to recompense me. And by the way, mediating to open a road pass is no easy feat. I searched for a whole year before I found a mediator," he concludes.
The stories revolving around the Fourth Division's roadblocks and their imposition of fees on passing vehicles appear endless. Intriguingly, there are individuals who have never encountered these fees due to the absence of any actions that could be deemed violations. Transporting a carton of tobacco is considered an offense, whereas carrying two large packs is permissible under their laws. Transporting 20 liters of gasoline is within the bounds of the law; while exceeding that amount becomes an offense. Nonetheless, there is invariably a method for dealing with these "extortions."
In addition to these challenges, there's the pressing issue of ports, which might be the most pivotal aspect of the Fourth Division's activities. They wield unassailable control over the Syrian coastline, conferring upon them the absolute authority to levy exorbitant "dues" and taxes on all incoming imports.
After traders pay the customs clearance fees for their imported goods at the port, the Fourth Division shows up to demand a cash payment equivalent to roughly 20% of the imported goods' value.
The decision to remove the Fourth Division from the equation is made in the hope of placating the protesters, not only in Sweida but across Syria. The regime is also banking on time to dilute the momentum and suppress any budding dissent. Will they succeed?
The array of monetary and economic policies at play have effectively transformed the Fourth Division from a combat unit into a financial institution. It now wields almost exclusive control over domestic pricing, which has soared to unprecedented levels. These exorbitant price hikes have left ordinary citizens struggling to afford their daily sustenance. Curiously, despite amassing vast sums of money, none of these funds seem to trickle down to benefit the country's populace. Even when the regime hiked the salaries of government employees back in mid-August of the previous year, this increase was promptly offset by the removal of subsidies on fuel, effectively nullifying any financial relief. So, the question looms: where do the considerable resources of the Fourth Division ultimately flow?
Out of the ordinary
Remarkably, the Syrian regime, irrespective of its historical highs or lows, has seldom displayed a willingness to make substantial concessions. A glaring illustration of this unyielding stance can be found in the events that unfolded in Homs towards the end of 2015. As the city grappled with a spate of bombings, the local community rallied to demand the removal of their governor, given the deteriorating security situation. The regime's response, albeit indirect, was crystal clear: "The more you protest, the longer your governor remains."
One might expect a similar response in Sweida, given the regime's established modus operandi. However, in reality, the authorities have made notable concessions to this province. These include exemptions for Sweida's residents from military service outside their home province, along with a host of province-specific laws. Notably, on the eve of the protests in Sweida, the regime even issued an order that contravened the constitution. This directive explicitly prohibited the arrest of any resident of Sweida for any security or law enforcement-related offense outside their province, except when the crime was committed in 'flagrante delicto' (caught in the act).
The decision to remove the Fourth Division from the equation is made in the hope of placating the anger of protesters, not only in Sweida but across Syria. Simultaneously, the regime is relying on the passage of time to dilute the momentum and suppress any budding dissent. Judging by their actions thus far, it seems they have made substantial concessions, particularly when viewed from their own perspective and in light of the protracted Syrian conflict that has endured for a dozen years.
However, the situation in Sweida has escalated to a point where it surpasses the scope of mere appeasement. It has evolved into a full-fledged challenge to the authority, and reports from the region indicate that people are unwilling to vacate the streets until their political demands are met. Additionally, the situation has taken a new twist after the United States directly engaged with the spiritual leader of the Druze community and a symbol of the southern protests, Hikmat Al-Hijri, while Damascus's allies are undoubtedly devising their counter-strategies. Amid the cacophony of competing plans, no Syrian wishes for Sweida to become yet another sacrificial pawn in the ongoing national crisis.
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