ISTANBUL — On a recent morning at around 5 a.m., Turkish security forces launched a sweeping crackdown on one of the oil-smuggling networks helping to fund Syria's war.
The border town of Besaslan had been home to a steady trade in illicit oil, which was drilled in wells controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria and then driven by middlemen to the border, where it was pumped into Turkey in makeshift pipes buried underground. Traders then sold it around southern Turkey, often to black-market filling stops. The operation created a financial boon in Besaslan — and made the town one of the hidden outposts of a region-wide fuel economy that U.S. officials estimate can net ISIS around $1 million a day.
Besaslan featured prominently in a BuzzFeed News investigation into oil-smuggling published in early November, days before the raid. The article included a firsthand account of a visit to the town's smuggling operation as well as photo evidence and testimony from a smuggler involved.
The surprise crackdown — which was reported by Turkey's official news agency and confirmed to BuzzFeed News by a Turkish government official and two oil-smugglers who worked in Besaslan — revealed new details of the smuggling operation there.
Turkish security forces destroyed underground pipelines totaling more than 12,800 meters in length, the news report said, citing the regional governor. They searched 19 homes in the small town and detained 37 suspects, Turks and Syrians alike. They also seized 20 vehicles believed to be involved in smuggling, which had license plates belonging to several provinces. As part of the raid, the report added, authorities uncovered illegal weapons, too: three pistols and 15 shotguns.
More than 1,100 security personnel were reportedly involved in the raid, with some bearing down on Besaslan in armored vehicles. "They besieged the town from all sides," a Turkish oil-smuggler from Besaslan told BuzzFeed News, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They cut all the pipes, burned them, and arrested everyone."
The smuggler said some of the men who escaped arrest were now wanted by Turkish authorities — including himself. "I'm angry [about the crackdown] and all the people in [Besaslan] are angry," he said.
Oil smuggling between Syria and Turkey, which has some of the highest fuel prices in the world, began long before the war. But the trade amplified with the outbreak of the uprising — which brought chaos along the porous, 565-mile border, and the promise of newfound profits. The Turkish smuggler noted the good fortune the war-time trade had brought to some in Besaslan. "To be honest, some people were dreaming just to ride donkeys in the past," he said. "Now they have luxurious cars and new homes."
The Turkish government has cited this long smuggling history — and the difficulties of policing the border — in response to critics who say it should do more to stop the illicit oil trade. It has also pointed to the kind of crackdowns that the government says intercepted more than 5 million gallons of smuggled oil along the Syrian and Iraqi borders in the first seven months of this year. "Counter-smuggling, like in any country, is a continuous effort in Turkey," the Turkish official said.
Within the last week, according to reports in the Turkish press, security forces seized an additional 200 meters of pipeline used to smuggle oil in another border town — as well as 12 rafts used to ferry oil barrels across a river. Separate operations in the border province reportedly also uncovered smuggled goods, including 100,000 boxes of cigarettes and 1,070 bottles of whiskey.
Even in the face of past crackdowns, some oil-smuggling has persisted — with the war-time desperation providing constant temptation. The Turkish smuggler said some Syrian refugees had been willing to work 12-hour days in Besaslan for paltry pay. While the people at the top used the trade to buy expensive cars, many residents relied on it just to get by. He estimated that more than a quarter of the men in town had been involved in the illegal trade in some way.
As a small-time oil smuggler in another border village put it: "This is our livelihood."