The street market in Jaramana, Syria, is a bargain hunter’s paradise.
Shoppers might find an ornate, 43-square-foot wool rug made by hand in Aleppo and pay less than $5 for it, rather than $100 or more. A refrigerator, normally $400, could be bought for half that much.
The items are a steal because they were, in fact, stolen. They’re part of the haul from the looting that has become routine after government victories in Syria’s seven-year civil war. Government-friendly militiamen, in many cases, strip vanquished rebel bastions of anything not destroyed by airstrikes, artillery and close-quarters urban fighting.
So prevalent is the looting that the word tafeesh, which means “furniturization,” has gained a new definition: to steal furniture.
Many residents and observers say that government loyalists have long treated the looting as their right as they defeat rebel forces, and that Syrian President Bashar Assad and his allies allow it to continue virtually unchecked.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition group based in Britain, said recently that its monitoring of the situation in some communities indicated “the looting culture is worsening.”
The group said local sources reported that forces loyal to the government in recent weeks “looted most of the homes of the eastern, southeastern and western countryside of Dara, where they steal household appliances, furniture, blankets, cars and cattle.”
The rebels too have taken advantage of opportunities to claim goods during the war. Aleppo, once Syria’s economic engine, was eviscerated when rebel factions blitzed through the industrial zones ringing the city in 2012.
They ransacked warehouses and transported entire factories across the border to Turkey, where rebel groups had set up rear-guard bases. Occasionally, they would sell the equipment back to the original owners. Industrial machines worth tens of thousands of dollars were melted down to be sold as scrap metal.
“They even ripped out the wiring from the walls for the copper,” said Moustafa Kawaie, an Aleppo business owner, as he walked through his factory during a government-organized trip to the city late last year.
Fighters with the militant group Islamic State took a more bureaucratic approach, grounded in an extreme interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence.
After taking over a city, the militants would scour neighborhoods for homes and businesses owned by Christians or Shiite Muslims — the jihadis consider the latter apostates who are to be killed. They would stencil on the building “Property of Islamic State,” then sell or rent the businesses to the Sunni Muslim populations under their grip.
The fighters took the doors, fridge, freezer, ovens, generators, even the wiring…. Nothing was left, and the army was watching them do it.
But it was the paramilitary factions bolstering Assad’s troops that turned looting into a high-stakes business, the total value of which remains unknown.
Once they seized rebel-held areas, the militiamen would engage in an orgy of tafeesh: Washing machines, refrigerators, satellite dishes, the furnishings of entire living rooms, even mismatched sets of cutlery would appear in markets such as the one in Jaramana.
As the government has picked off the opposition’s bastions over the last two years, fresh offensives have brought new supplies of goods to be sold. The fridge in the Jaramana market had come from the government’s April campaign against the former rebel holdout of Ghouta, the rug from the last offensive on Dara.
Government-controlled areas haven’t been immune. In Ramouseh, a loyalist neighborhood outside Aleppo, fighters with the Tiger Forces, a unit of the state’s air force intelligence directorate, tied up guards and emptied their factories, local media reported.
As the vanguard of most government offensives, the Tiger Forces are the first to get to the spoils.
“They assign the duties to different groups,” said one activist who, like many of those interviewed for this story, declined to be named because of safety concerns. “One group gets fridges, another takes [air conditioners], another one deals with furniture. No one encroaches on the goods of the other.”
Local media outlets, both pro-opposition and pro-government, have reported on dozens of workers strong-armed by paramilitary groups into stripping wires and electric cables from devastated neighborhoods. When they’re done, lower-level paramilitaries go in and snatch up the crumbs.
There are several options for vendors hoping to cash in on the trade, one merchant explained in an interview this month.
Some pay a fixed sum for an entire truckload, sight unseen, and sell whatever they get. Others contract with a dozen or so militiamen working under a commander to get their spoils or ransack a certain area.
Those whose homes were emptied trudge through the markets to try to buy back what they lost.
Abu Ahmad, a villager from the southern town of Saida, said he left home this month to escape the government’s latest offensive on Dara. A week later, he came back to a house pillaged to its foundation.
“The fighters took the doors, fridge, freezer, ovens, generators, even the wiring.… Nothing was left, and the army was watching them do it,” he said in a recent Facebook chat.
He headed to the nearby city of Sweida to recover what he could, but all he found from his home was a single rug.
“The merchant told me that was all that was left from the truck.… Everything had been sold within two days,” said Abu Ahmad.
The markets are an open secret, said an activist who runs a Sweida-based Facebook group that exposes tafeesh vendors and tries to get authorities to stop them.
“No one needs to show you where they are. They’re on the edges of the street, selling goods without any bill of sale or documentation,” said the activist in a Facebook chat.
Although looting has been reported in pro-government media outlets, authorities were “in paralysis,” the activist said, and haven’t gone beyond issuing poorly enforced injunctions against militiamen or market vendors. There’s also concern that anyone protesting too loudly may face retaliation.
Rida Basha, a reporter with the pro-government Lebanese news broadcaster Al Mayadeen, was barred from working as a journalist in Syria after covering tafeesh in a widely shared article in early 2017.
In the article, he had reported that a paramilitary group called Liwa al-Quds, as well as the Desert Falcons, once the largest private militia in Syria, had blocked medicine shipments from entering Aleppo until they could sell drugs they had looted from rebel warehouses.
Both factions, Basha said, worked under the umbrella of the army’s elite 4th Division, headed by Assad’s younger brother Maher. The unit has long been suspected of involvement in shakedowns at checkpoints as well as tafeesh, many Syrians say.
Basha later said in a series of posts on Facebook that his report had enraged 4th Division commanders, and that his ban was ordered by Maher Assad.
Tafeesh has also sparked tension with Russia, Bashar Assad’s top ally, which has deployed its military police as guarantors of surrender deals between the government and the rebels.
In May, a video emerged of three Russian military officers arresting three government fighters when they tried to leave Babbila, a suburb near Damascus, with two truckloads of furniture. A crowd gathering around them breaks into applause when the Russians force the looters to lie on the ground.
But it’s little more than a continuation of the prewar trend of corruption, said Aymenn Tamimi, an expert on Syrian factions, in a Facebook chat this month.
“There are chances for new guys to become middlemen but they’re still part of the same system. It’s part of the way Assad’s Syria works: Concessions are made at the lower levels but the top of the system essentially remains as it is,” he said.
Although many Syrians have protested against tafeesh, many others see it as the just reward for soldiers whose pay, already a pittance, had been further whittled down by a weaker Syrian pound and higher prices.
It also provides a vehicle for revenge. Residents in government-friendly neighborhoods, especially in the early days of the war, lost homes and businesses, or were kidnapped by the rebels. With the opposition now weakened, they see the looting as payback for the damage they endured.
There’s inevitably a sectarian element. Tafeesh markets appearing in religiously mixed cities such as Homs are often called souq al-Sunnah (the Sunnis’ market). The name reveals a truth the government is reluctant to acknowledge: It’s fighting an almost completely Sunni opposition, and its battles have ravaged and emptied mostly Sunni areas.
None of that mattered much to Abu Ahmad, the man from Saida whose house was ransacked. He had lost hope of getting his belongings back and was considering leaving Syria.
“I have nothing left for me here,” he said.
And the carpet, the last remaining item from his old house? He didn’t buy it back.
A special correspondent, who is not being identified for security reasons, reported from Jaramana and Times staff writer Bulos from Beirut.