The Game is the Game

February 18, 2014

“The game is the game,” said Avon Barksdale on The Wire. The “game” Barksdale is talking about is the drug trade he ran in Baltimore’s West Side. When Barksdale, hit-man Brother Mouzone and others say “the game is the game,” they are referring both to 1) the idiosyncrasies of the game, (baseball fans would call this the “Manny being Manny” phenomena) and 2) the game’s objective being the game itself: For Barksdale, there was no higher purpose to his game of fighting for street corners and selling dope to locals. Profit-maximizing cooperation with other dealers, let alone his deputy Stringer Bell’s real estate business aspirations, was an anathema.

But Barksdale’s phrase could also describe an important type of armed actor in Syria. The game is also the game for networks that smuggle people and materials across the Turkish-Syrian border, mafia-types in refugee camps, and others. These groups want space to operate and make money—and are willing to use violence to protect that space. For this reason, a solution to the Syria crisis must account for both the myriad rebel groups that are fighting over Syria’s political future, and the armed groups who are likely to resist all efforts to rein them in, regardless of who is in charge.

Smugglers profit from moving people, fuel, weapons, and other goods, like Syrian antiques, across the 560 mile Syrian-Turkish border. “The Syrians come every day, every night, sometimes by the thousands,” said Husayin, who lives in the Turkey near Syria’s Aleppo province. Turkey is even building walls in several places along the border. In September, Italian authorities intercepted nearly 200 Syrian refugees off the coast of Sicily being smuggled by Egyptians. In October, after arresting 10 members of a smuggling ring, Serbian police reported that refugees pay $2,840-$4,730 to get to Europe from Syria and other countries. According to a Lebanese security official, “Illegal migration has increased with the influx of Syrian refugees…Criminal networks have started to focus on Syrians but also on Lebanese.” “I paid $US 8,000 for [my son’s] trip” to Australia, said the mayor of Kabiit, a Lebanese village near Syria.

Smugglers have local constituencies as well. Many Turks enjoy cheap black market Syrian fuel. In Syria, there is a market for fuel, food, and other goods. Material comes from Turkey, Iraq, and regime-controlled areas, and is sold at a steep mark-up to civilians, rebel fighters, and the state. There is also the illicit weapons trade, in which Russia, Iran, and others funnel arms to the Assad regime, while others, primarily Arab Gulf states, arm rebels. Within Syria, Syrian army soldiers sell their weapons to rebels, and local dealers sell to the Syrian state and rebels alike. The illicit weapons economy is too large for even the massive Syrian civil war: arms that were once trafficked through Lebanon into Syria are making their way back to satisfy Lebanese demand.

Without the protection that comes with licit commerce under functioning governments, smugglers must fend for themselves. “They’re armed with guns, knives… We’re afraid to go out, we want it to stop,” says Husayin, the Turkish border resident. In August, the Turkish military exchanged fire with what it said were 2,500-3,000 fuel smugglers. The smugglers set fuel barrels on fire while local allies attacked troops with firearms and homemade weapons.

Families in the eastern Syrian provinces of Hasakeh, Deir Ezzor, and Raqqa have taken to bootlegging oil. These families sell fuel from abandoned state-run refineries and ramshackle hole-in-the ground operations to all manner of rebels—including the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, as well as Free Syrian Army units—and the state. Abu Zayed operates a gas plant in Deir Ezzour; he sells gas to a local Jabhat al-Nusra unit, the government’s gas grid, and a plethora of tribes. The tribes come armed, some with anti-aircraft guns on their pick-up trucks. “They were with the regime and when they saw the regime collapsing decided to join the revolution. Now I don’t recognize them as part of the revolution,” said one fighter about Abu Zayed. “I only see those around me on the frontlines as the real revolutionaries. The rest—they are mercenaries and they will be eradicated after the war.” The fighter is right about the tribes being mercenaries, but people who bring anti-aircraft weapons to work everyday probably won’t go away easily, if at all.

Refugee camps have sprouted their own apolitical non-state actors. With over 130,000 inhabitants, the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan is the world’s second largest. Residents complain that “Some have surrounded themselves by Shabeehas [armed thugs]…whom they hire to steal things from the camp at night and then sell them.” Kilian Kleinschmidt, the representative of United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees, calls himself the mayor of Zaatari, but notes that Mohamed al-Hariri, a “mafia don to Syrian refugees” according to one profile, poses a challenge to his authority. Says Kleinschmidt, “We are two powerful men, so, if we would work against each other, the camp would explode.” When Hariri arrived in Zaatari in August 2012 as the 60th refugee, he asked for extra blankets from an aid worker. He added, “Give me the stuff now or I will separate your head from your body.” Today Hariri claims 21 streets, with men patrolling day and night. He siphons electricity from an Italian hospital and has an artificial turf courtyard. Hariri sees streams of people daily, helping their relatives cross borders or arranging for additional electricity. What does the patron require of his clients? “Just their love,” he says. In response to rumors that he could have people killed, Hariri says, “I could, if I wanted to…but I would never let it get to that point.” Even within the bounds of a single refugee camp, the international community cannot prevent private fiefdoms backed by lethal force.

As Syrians and the international community struggle to respond to the crisis in Syria, the focus has been on harmonizing competing political agendas within the anti-regime opposition, and political negotiations with the Assad regime. And yet, smugglers, arms traffickers, bootleggers, and local crime bosses are not fighting for the political future of Syria. Even if political accords are reached or one party achieves victory on the battlefield, Hariri, Abu Zayed, and the myriad smuggling networks on Syria’s borders will still be there, ready to fight, as they have since the war began, for their business. For them, the game is the game.


Samuel Abrams is a senior associate at Caerus Associates, a strategy and design firm, where he specializes in understanding populations affected by conflict.  He was formerly the Managing Editor of the SAIS Review, the international affairs journal of the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies.


Photo credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office