The looting years

Translator: 

The thriving trade in possessions and even infrastructure looted by the Syrian regime isn't just a symptom of economic crisis and a wider moral breakdown following the war; it points to the ever-worsening criminality that awaits the country's future under Assad.

[Editor’s note: The below article was produced as part of Al-Jumhuriya’s 2017 Fellowship for Young Writers. It was originally published in Arabic on 9 August, 2018.]

Whether it’s in conversations between public transport passengers, friends, relatives, or buyers and sellers at the market, the prevailing public discourse today clearly condemns the phenomenon of ta’fish (the looting of the homes of Syria’s forcibly displaced civilians). At the same time, the phenomenon is no longer confined to designated places—what were known as the “Sunni markets,” for instance—but has instead spread among countless street peddlers and people selling from the backs of their vehicles, as well as shops that open for short time periods for the express purpose of selling looted goods.

On the bus heading to and from Jaramana, southeast of Damascus, in the aftermath of the battle for Ghouta, one could hear passengers noting the passing trucks crammed with home furniture, water tanks, small electrical appliances, or larger equipment for sewing workshops. The passengers curse the thieves, and denounce their behavior, only for one of them to get off the bus, and stand there inspecting the used kitchen utensils offered by one roadside vendor.

In these verbal denunciations of the looting, the latter is never anything more than one of the many afflictions of the war, lamented with the phrase “God deliver us,” always placing responsibility on anonymous hands, for fear of security repercussions or disputes. Bemoaning the problem, while diverting responsibility elsewhere at the same, earns all sides a false moral satisfaction, and a pleasing sense of victimhood, relieving one of personal accountability, and drawing the lines of morality and duty, which are hazy in wartime.

In the new Syrian reality, looting may as well be the new social contract. The term ta’fish here seems very appropriate for the era, as it implies the takeover of what cannot be guarded, from the hands of an owner fearful for what’s more important still; their very existence. It is linked to the fate of Syrians, and their vulnerability to another term, tashbeeh, which means the use, direct or indirect, of the regime’s force to impose things on the victim against their will (and is linked grammatically to shabbiha, the regime’s infamous loyalist thugs). Tashbeeh and ta’fish, hidden and visible, are intertwined, and are perhaps the two verbs that will shape our lives and shroud them with misery, which will only be restricted by our own efforts to stand up to them.

Who is the buyer?

The purchase of looted property is typically associated with Assad regime supporters, especially since most of the markets for looted goods are in such areas as Jaramana, Dahyet Harasta, and Kashkul, whose residents have a reputation for regime loyalty. Political alignment may actually contribute to mitigating the self-evident illegality and moral aberration of buying stolen goods, and the duty of refraining from such misdeeds. That is, alas, not the most predominant opinion, for loyalists have bought into the regime’s patriotic discourse, and it is untenable to remain consistent with this discourse while defending the purchase of looted goods.

Moral and emotional blackmail is also employed by loyalists in this regard, on the basis of the “sacrifice” made by the fighters on the frontlines, while others lived comfortably in their homes. This justifies them in looting, or doing whatever they please to the “terrorists” and their property, since the latter are supposed to be the root cause of the current predicament. Regime loyalists further justify the looting by the poverty of those engaging in it, who suffered gravely in defense of the country against terror. This elevates them to a status entitling them to that to which others are not entitled, and attaches ta’fish to the Islamic concept of the spoils of war (al-ghanima).

Furthermore, regime supporters see the areas that were under opposition control as “terrorist” areas deserving all the catastrophes that have befallen them, even if this justification is no more than a challenge, for the permissibility of looting is not the reason you bought a refrigerator; you bought it because you needed it, and because it was cheap. The people engaging in this are the same ones who benefit from food baskets, despite their ability to make ends meet. The general economic decline has helped some Syrians find justifications to take what isn’t theirs. This applies equally to those sympathetic to the opposition, making it an ethical problem independent of political positions.

Theoretically, everyone appears opposed to buying the fruits of ta’fish, and none would openly pride in their engagement in it, hence the use of the euphemism “second-hand” to describe such items. In practice, tempting prices seem to be a factor overriding any theoretical aversion to it. It no longer matters whether one supports or opposes the regime; what matters are the ethics of the consumer market, summed up in the popular saying: “If I don’t take advantage of it, someone else will, and I’m more deserving than anyone else.” Between the abstract and the practical, all kinds of excuses are found, whether it’s the debate of whether or not it’s theft (“Many people are themselves selling their belongings”); or the available options (“Used goods are the only option, as buying new is untenable” or “New items are too expensive"); or the desperate nihilism (“It makes no difference to anyone whether I buy it or not”).

There is also sometimes the justification that the buyers themselves have suffered the same crime. One can’t help notice that many buyers in Damascus and its countryside are themselves among the forcibly displaced. For most of them, the decline in living standards well below the poverty line makes ethical considerations a luxury they can’t afford. In the scorching heart of summer, buying a looted fan, compared to the alternative of fanning oneself with a piece of cardboard, is possibly a substantial improvement to one’s life condition, and that’s the furthest one takes the thought. There is no room for thinking about anyone else, or for any moral dimension regarding personal behavior.

State conflicts

“The land is ours, and everything above it is yours for the taking,” goes a common saying among military men, supposedly originating from one of their commanders. It’s said that Defense Minister General Fahd al-Freij announced that he didn’t want to see so much as one metal bolt left behind in al-Mleiha, east of Damascus, such was the intensity of his fury at the cost of its recapture.

Here, the state deals with its own institutions with compounded contradiction. One the one hand, pillage and plunder are permissible as compensation for supposed sacrifices in the fight and a reward for the recapture of land. At the same time, the laws of the state, its constitution, and its executive and judicial branches, sometimes rise to occasion to hold some individuals accountable for commiting previously-permissible acts of plunder. Thus, official state media discourse denies the entire phenomenon, and alleges that those arrested in May by the Russians and placed at their feet were wanted fugitives who only claimed to belong to the Syrian army. This is despite the cascade of news about the recovery of stolen property, the latest haul valued at one billion Syrian pounds (US$1.9m), according to Interior Minister Muhammad al-Shaar, as courts overflow with military personnel suspected of “theft during disturbances,” the legal term for ta’fish.

It’s said that the fighters in the 4th Armoured Division and in allied militias are allowed to use Captagon (fenethylline) pills and hashish, and are provided the substances by their own commanders, and if they are arrested outside their military units by a security branch, the investigation is cut short and they’re returned unharmed and the charges dropped. However, they are left alone to face charges of theft if they are caught looting, and are disavowed by the same commanders who allowed them to engage in it in the first place.

Orders are given to “comb” the areas within a certain time interval, with the implication that this is the time allotted for looting. A date is set for the end of the operation, before which the military thieves hurry to take what they can. In the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, the “combing” period was extended because the troops hadn’t finished taking everything. Timing is obviously of the essence in these matters, and those who get in early take away the largest hauls. For example, in Daraya, the 4th Division and the Air Force Intelligence were on two battlefronts to retake the city, and when the time was ripe for ta’fish, Air Force Intelligence entered the area first, meaning they would get the lion’s share of the spoils. This led to a dispute, forcing Maher al-Assad, commander of the 4th Division, and Major General Jamil Hassan of the Air Force Intelligence to communicate personally, resolving the dispute in favor of the president’s brother before then-imminent clashes broke out.

Disputes over looting have become common knowledge, sometimes leading to injuries and even deaths of regime soldiers. An argument might break out within the same division, over “who has the right to take what.” It’s reminiscent of those American films in which the criminals are constantly betraying one another, and where the most ruthless among them is the one most capable of taking things that others decline to fight him over. In the course of the Syrian war, tashbeeh in ta’fish went from first targeting the people, to allied parties on the same side then targeting each other, to people within the same one party turning on each other, leaving one wondering: Who will remain standing? Who is the strongest? And how long will they survive? The war, then, seems to be one big selection process to elect the most powerful gang of criminals possible to control Syria henceforth.

There exists a ta’fish hierarchy, indicating who is entitled to loot without accountability, and who is left to face a thief’s fate if they are unfortunate. There appear to be no reasons for impunity or punishment except the possibility, or otherwise, of arresting the perpetrator, with the certainty that there are names that inevitably remain outside the realm of accountability.

Factories, facilities, even state institutions, and anything that may contain heavy equipment, are the purview of major thieves. Heavy and agricultural machinery, and other equipment from Ghouta, which were considered real capital by their owners, were seen stacked in warehouses on the ground of the old Damascus International Fair in central Damascus. Traffic comes to a standstill, and policemen facilitate the entry of huge trucks in front of a crowd of spectators. Here, nonviolent options are woven in the minds of Syrians, accepting defeat in the face of overwhelming violence, and they return to smiling at the face of the principal thief who needs no justification for what he does, while the smaller thieves justify their actions by their suffering. Those with money might be able to buy back what they need at a reduced price, and instead of challenging and demanding what’s rightfully theirs, they will submit to those capable of doing anything, and combat tashbeeh through buying into ta’fish, measuring their success by the minimization of their loss, with perseverance the only alternative to total surrender

Evolution and institutionalization

Some fighters in the militias say that they previously had more pride in what they were doing than they do today. Their bringing a washing machine or a refrigerator home to an impoverished family was material evidence of their victory, and revenge against those “terrorists” who killed their comrades and had to be punished in the name of the state in retaliation, rather than punitive retribution, as if that was a lesson to history itself, and not only them. However, what now prevails is bewilderment at the efficiency of the economic machine of ta’fish; the meticulous organization of it; and the entry of those who have never participated in a battle, only to pillage.

The Syrian Copper and Metal Company is located in Damascus’ Mezzeh district, and its core mission is the management of the affairs of Maher al-Assad and the businessman Muhammad Hamsho, and the purchase of stolen copper from the commanders of combat units, who arrive from far and wide in their cars with tinted windows and no registration plates, to exchange invoices they had previously taken from the company for bags of cash. Three porters stand with bodyguards from the 4th Division to help load the money. The company’s few employees, armed and wearing military uniforms, organize the transport, weighing, and payment processes conducted between looted areas and Hamsho’s steel factory in Adra, northeast of Damascus. The cargo trucks arrive at the area, pick up the copper and then transport it with escorts through the checkpoints to reach Adra, where it is then sold by Hamsho, mostly to Lebanese and Syrian markets at competitive prices. He buys it wholesale at about 1,500 Syrian pounds ($3) per kilo, while its real value is closer to 5,000 ($10).

The method of extracting the copper reveals obscene and unparalleled levels of vandalism. The asphalt of roads is burnt with gasoline, and then the ground is dug with bulldozers to extract copper cables from the ground, as around fifteen meters of copper wiring exist between each electric pole and the next. The copper contained in each meter is sold at around 100,000 pounds ($194), and then these cables are placed in furnaces where the plastic insulation is melted off and the copper is retrieved.

After the fighting ended in Yarmouk camp, the pillars of smoke that kept rising through the air for many days later were the fumes of copper plunder. Everyone in the city watched what they had previously known to be the dark skies of war, but this was another sky, one with smoke that does not mean new deaths, but rather an ambiguous peace they will live for a long time to come.

An economy that devours itself

Ta’fish aggravates the economic damage of the war by orders of magnitude, and raises the cost of reconstruction, to replace what was sold at the lowest of prices. Returning entire neighborhoods to a state before construction and infrastructure, and destroying what few walls remain standing to extract and pillage what inside them, is a systematic process of impoverishment of the country. It is a process replacing production with property recycling, undercutting its value, swapping its owners, like a rotting carcass devouring what little sign of life remains until it simply vanishes.

With the severe decline in living standards, and ignoring the “second-hand” markets, were one to examine the new products available, one would find third- and fourth-rate options of everything, in terms of quality; a parallel economy that supplies the needs of the population in the form of products that are too poor in quality to be guaranteed by their seller a moment after their purchase, the buying of which is a gamble insured only by belief in the supernatural, and by hopeful prayers.

Houses that were built, equipped, and furnished with long-term sustainability in mind have been replaced by an attitude of short-term necessity, with the implication of the possible need to dispense with everything and leave it behind at a moment’s notice. Even maintenance workers are now in the business of furthering service life, rather than finding real solutions to problems encountered, and they often use equipment the source of which they deny is ta’fish; using up what’s available, only to lose it again.

The moral question

Signs of implicit resistance remain the only endeavor in which hope may be found. Outright condemnation of ta’fish may be challenged with accusations of false moral superiority, by saying that need and demand are what keep the practice alive, and that moralization is a fake pretense. However, the need to defend or justify the act by its necessity means that it’s not simply a matter of the war and the enemy’s deserving of harm. There is an implicit recognition of people from the rebellious areas, or at least those among them displaced in regime areas. In this, of course, I refer to regime loyalists who have no qualms legitimizing the annihilation of others.

Many still refuse to buy the products of ta’fish, often for religious reasons, rooted in the refusal to buy what is ill-gotten. The difficulty of maintaining this attitude, however, comes from the fact that it is often voiced by displaced families who sleep on mattresses and mats bearing the United Nations logo. This is eminently commendable moral virtue, but its abandonment may not be a sufficient reason for moral chiding as things stand today. It is easy to construct moralistic rhetoric disdaining those who buy stolen items, but the transformation of new furniture and electrical appliances—with the exception of low-grade Chinese products—into a consumer market that includes no one but elites relatively untouched, economically, by the war, forces one to consider appropriate ethics that fulfill their purpose and achieve a common good.

Perhaps the recent anti-looting initiatives in Suwayda, which included audio-visual and social media campaigns, religious fatwas, and bringing the matter to regime courts by filing lawsuits, have taken us to the realm of moral debate over the issue, in which some Syrians seem to consider their common interests, and put everything they have on the discussion table, even if only hypothetically.

This hypothetical debate, and its natural conclusions, get us closer towards realistic expectations, even if it arrived too late and in the last chapters of the Syrian war, and the start of another. It makes for waves of popular thought that can remain and become established as moral constants among Syrians. Today, we do not have the luxury to distinguish or to choose, as the standard of living of the majority of the population falls below the global rates of extreme poverty. For things to remain the same would warn of nothing short of a destruction of social capital, further corrupted by political polarization. What remains possible is to continue denoting and promoting morality, and avoiding incrimination. The entire country can be turned into criminals, so perhaps focusing on virtues at this time is the only possible means of survival, and anything else is assured ruination.

The instability imposed by displacement and war, in addition to a dreary and uncertain future, have pushed individuals towards options that range from the morally questionable to the downright unthinkable. The Syrian is thus left to morally defend themselves, and to justify their actions, within givens that they have yet to develop tools for understanding or coping with. This understanding is a collective responsibility, shared between those who are conscious of the implications of an act, and those who are not. Perhaps the moral debate on the question of ta’fish is a possible avenue for dialogue, because discussion of attitudes towards the regime has been indefinitely suspended in areas of its control, and for us to return to that level of debate will only exacerbate the problem. Conversely, to develop foundational ethics for all Syrians, which consolidate what’s shared and moral within our objective lived reality, is what requires intellectuals to develop a common sense shared with all other Syrians.

Many Syrians have been robbed of the fruits of a lifetime of labor, and much has been irreparably destroyed. But perhaps it is still possible to make some use of our calamity, on several levels, the most organic of which should be subject to introspection by observers, to gain insights and attempt to transform them into a culture that can reach those affected by ta’fish—both victims and practitioners. Accusations of theft leveled against the regime, including by its own supporters, could be a starting point that must be seized upon and developed as much as possible, and it is of no use today to ridicule this low standard of benefit for Syrians. Perhaps it is sufficient today that even our most powerless and voiceless citizen realizes that the country’s oil belongs to Bashar al-Assad, its telecommunications to Rami Makhlouf, and its metals to Maher al-Assad, and that the lived experience of Syrians informs them that things simply cannot remain the same in the future.

What remain are old glasses long showcased in our mothers’ houses, and Romeo and Juliet-themed plates denoting a specific era of subjugation Syrians have lived through; these delicate and brittle things are now showcased instead by peddlers on the streets, painting a fragile and sorrowful image of the end of the concussion of war, and the way it will be carved into the memories of all Syrians.