The distance between the Syrian city of Raqqa and the Iraqi city of Mosul is about 370 kilometres as the crow flies, and closer to 450 kilometres if one drives between the two “capitals” controlled by the extremist group known as the Islamic State. Usually truckers carrying goods between the two locations took a route that brought them through Tal Afar, another extremist stronghold, then on to Sinjar, then to Hasaka in Syria and finally on to Raqqa.
But recently, the Islamic State, or IS, group were driven out of Sinjar by a large number of Iraqi Kurdish troops aided by US airstrikes. Part of the aim of the operation was to cut the supply line between the two major cities in Iraq and Syria controlled by the IS group. As British newspaper, the Guardian, reported in mid-November: “Although heavily targeted throughout the campaign, [the IS group] has kept a supply line between Raqqa and Mosul largely open. The highway, in particular, has been a major conduit for trade and the flow of fighters”.
I wasn't sure we would ever reach Raqqa. We drove through vast and desolate desert areas.
But now the Iraqi Kurdish victory in Sinjar has meant changes in the nearby city of Mosul especially for local truck drivers. Local man, Hisham Abed*, drives a 1980s-era Mercedes truck and he used to take the route described above. It took him about six or seven hours to make the journey to Raqqa, he says, and he liked the road because it was paved and relatively safe.
Straight after the victory in Sinjar, locals in Mosul were confused and concerned. They feared that operations to retake their city from the IS group would soon begin and then, on a more everyday note, they were worried because the price of many groceries – and in particular, food items – rose dramatically, almost immediately, due to the blocked roads. However interestingly enough, those prices seem to have returned to normal now. Why? Because truck drivers like Abed found a new way to Raqqa.
“My truck was one of the first to travel this new route,” Abed told NIQASH proudly, soon after he arrived back in Mosul after another tiring journey. “We left after the closure of the Sinjar. And to be honest, I wasn't sure we would ever reach Raqqa. We drove through vast and desolate desert areas. It was a very long and dangerous way. But it was the only way we could go in order to bring food and other necessities to Mosul.”
The new route out of Mosul heads south rather than west. Trucks drive to Tal Abtah on real roads, then from there take a dirt road for 60 kilometres until they get to the Qayrawan (also known as Balij) sub-district, southwest of Mosul. There's a paved road here, not far from the Sinjar mountain, and from there the trucks cross into Syria.
Abed says at times on the trip there are no traces of life, only a few mud huts. Bedouin sheep herders used to graze their flocks here but the area is now lifeless, having suffered several severe droughts.
The new way out of town is crowded now, and locals have been setting up stalls to sell food and fuel to truckers.
“The funny thing is we've started to see a few people opening small stalls to sell food to the truckers, as well as fuel,” Abed notes. “That hasn't happened in this area for a long time.”
And there are other adaptations: Another of the truck drivers has outfitted his truck like a mobile mechanic's workshop, carrying tools and spare wheels so he can fix trucks if they break down in the desert. He is charging his colleagues high prices for his services.
The time that the journey from Mosul to Raqqa takes has now doubled. The truckers now need about 12 hours to get to Raqqa and the same amount of time to get back to Mosul. This has obviously made life more difficult for those awaiting the goods in either city.
For example, one of the Mosul merchants, Hassan Thanon, complains that he can no longer communicate with the drivers of trucks carrying his stocks. There is no mobile phone network operating along the remote roads – and the mobile networks operating in areas under the IS group's control don't work very well anyway. “I can only reach them when they get over the Syrian border and then only via the Internet,” Thanon told NIQASH.
Transport costs have also increased by about 25 percent, he reports: “But we were only able to increase the prices of our goods a little bit because people living in Mosul can barely afford to buy anything anyway”.
About ten days after the first trucks forged their way through to Raqqa, the new back roads were already getting crowded with trucks and small vans from both cities. This same new network of remote roads is also being used by fighters from the IS group to ensure their own supplies. And many locals suspect that the IS group are quite likely to be moving their own cargo and people in civilian vehicles, making it harder again for the international alliance or Russian planes to strike.
Abed himself says he saw the results of one air strike. Planes had hit a convoy of trucks carrying vegetables from Raqqa to Mosul; three trucks on the Syrian side of the border were totally burned out.
However, as Abed notes, there are no guarantees that this road will continue to be drivable. “As long as it doesn't become impassable in the winter rains, then there's nothing wrong with this route,” Abed says. “But the most serious problem we have is aerial bombardment, and especially if military operations reach the Balij area. Then Mosul will really be under a complete siege.”
*All names of locals living in Mosul and their details have been changed for their own safety.