Syrian smugglers shun weapons and turn to cigarettes for profits

They used to sneak in weapons and blackmarket oil. But now eastern Syria's smugglers are seeking profit from a new illicit product: cigarettes.

It is forbidden under the austere religious law imposed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, but smoking is a habit many Syrians find hard to break. Despite its military might and its control of nearly a third of Syria and neighbouring Iraq, Isis faces an uphill battle tackling smoking in a region where roughly 40 per cent of the population is addicted.

"When you have as many worries as people living through war - and under Isis - of course we are just going to smoke even more than before," says one smoker from Deir Ezzor. "Now, you'll never see someone smoking in the street. You can be fined [$65] and beaten, imprisoned or even sent to the front lines as labour, like digging trenches."

Yet cigarettes offer a rare business opportunity for those ready to take the risk - from desperate refugees trying to fund their escape from war-torn cities to large smuggling rings seeking higher returns.

In the northern town of Tabqa, Abu Ayman, who like all those interviewed did not want his real name published - uses his pickup truck to smuggle in cigarettes, stuffing packs into the seats, tyres and packages of food he pretends are his main product for trade.

"I can only bring in a small amount, but I can sell it for at least double the price that I bought them. It's a reasonable profit," he says.

Impoverished by Syria's four-year civil war, cigarette smuggling offers a lifeline to some. Poor refugees fleeing northern Aleppo, heading to nearby Isis territory to escape ferocious daily government air strikes on their city, sometimes fund their journey with cigarettes. They sell the packs to traders once they arrive. "The best way to do it is to hide the cigarettes with the women," Mr Ayman says, because conservative Isis fighters may be reluctant to inspect them. "Just selling one pack will cover the cost of the trip - the demand among customers here is huge."

Local brands of cigarettes that once sold for the equivalent of 50 cents a pack are now around $1.50 - a lot of money for Syrians, the majority of whom now live on less than $2 a day. Even more difficult to buy is flavoured tobacco for the water pipes that are ubiquitous in the Middle East. Smokers complain they can usually only find one flavour on the market for about $20 a kilo, six times the usual price.

In Deir Ezzor, locals say the cigarette trade is run by big smugglers whose profitable oil and weapons trade was taken over by Isis.

"Now, they make most of their money from cigarettes. Many of these smugglers themselves pledged allegiance to Isis, perhaps to build some kind of relationship with them," says a businessman from the eastern city of Mayadeen who called himself Kareem.

Some smugglers pay off Isis checkpoints, others are helped by co-operative smokers in the jihadi ranks in exchange for a steady supply of cigarettes. Isis sometimes asks people it knows are smokers to spy for their morality police, known as the Hisba.

For traders, getting caught is costly but not life-threatening. Whether or not they are beaten, their vehicles are seized and they are fined double the cost of their contraband. "I tried to pay them in Syrian lira, but they would only accept dollars," says one smuggler.

Omar, a big cigarette smuggler in Raqqa with an entire network of traders, was caught through an informant last month. He suspects Isis is more interested in raising cash than it is in stopping smugglers.

"They never beat me at all, they never tortured me. They just saw us as a profitable catch," he says. "They didn't even try to learn how we smuggled in the cigarettes or who the bigger traders were."

In Raqqa, residents say Isis has put up billboards encouraging smokers to instead chew branches from the Arak tree, which Islamic tradition says were commonly chewed by the Prophet Mohammed.

Smokers seem unconvinced. Lighting incense to cover the smell of smoke, young men who once gathered in cafes now puff their cigarettes together at home. "I wish I could quit," says another smoker. " But the cigarette is a loyal friend in a time of trouble."

Additional reporting by a journalist in Raqqa

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