The distance from the Syrian city of Raqqa to Iraq’s Mosul is about 230 miles as the crow flies, and closer to 280 miles if one drives between the two “capitals” controlled by the self-declared Islamic State. Truckers carrying goods between the two locations had been taking 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 ISIS has been driven out of Sinjar by a large number of Iraqi Kurdish troops, aided by U.S. airstrikes. Part of the aim of the operation was to cut the supply line between the two major cities controlled by the terror group. As The Guardian reported in mid-November: “Although heavily targeted throughout the campaign, ISIS 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.”
Now that Iraqi Kurdish victory is causing changes in nearby Mosul, especially for truck drivers. Hisham Abed (not his real name, for security reasons) says he and his 1980s-era Mercedes truck used to take the circuitous route described above. It took him just about six or seven hours to make the journey to Raqqa, and he liked the road because it was paved and relatively safe.
After the victory in Sinjar, locals in Mosul were concerned. They feared that Allied coalition operations to retake their city from ISIS would soon begin. The price of many groceries rose dramatically, almost immediately, due to the blocked roads. But 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 said proudly, soon after he arrived back in Mosul after another tiring journey. “We left after the closure of 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. Truckers drive on real roads to Tal Abtah, then take a dirt road for nearly 40 miles until they get to the Qayrawan (also known as Balij) subdistrict southwest of Mosul. There’s a paved road here, not far from the Sinjar Mountains, 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 following several severe droughts.
“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: One driver has outfitted his truck like a mobile mechanic’s workshop, carrying tools and spare wheels so he can make repairs if they break down in the desert. He’s charging his colleagues high prices for his services.
The time the trip from Mosul to Raqqa takes has now doubled: Truckers now need about 12 hours to get to Raqqa and the same amount of time to get back to Mosul. It’s making life more difficult for those awaiting goods in either city.
Mosul merchant Hassan Thanon (again, a pseudonym) 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 ISIS’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,” he said.
Transport costs have also increased by about 25 percent, Thanon said. “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 10 days after the first trucks forged their way to Raqqa, the new back roads were already getting crowded with trucks and small vans from both cities. The same network of remote roads is also being used by ISIS fighters to ensure their supplies. And many locals suspect ISIS is quite likely moving its own cargo and people in civilian vehicles, making it harder again for the international alliance or Russian planes to strike.
Abed says he saw the results of one airstrike. Planes had hit a convoy of trucks carrying vegetables from Raqqa to Mosul; three trucks on the Syrian side of the border were 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,” he 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.”