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Turkish border businesses miss the Syrian neighbors 13 décembre 2011

Posted by Acturca in Economy / Economie, Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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The New York Times (USA) December 13, 2011, p. A 12

Dan Bilefsky, Gaziantep (Turkey)

In the old bazaar of this ancient city, long entwined with Syria, the loud chatter of Syrians’ bartering in Arabic has given way to unfamiliar silence.

There is no sign of the 40,000 Syrians who trekked each month to the gleaming Sanko Park shopping mall here to buy designer head scarves or discounted Gucci shoes. There is no more need for public announcements in both Turkish and Arabic. Many came from Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, just 60 miles away.

« We miss the Syrians, » said Ercan Nacaroglu, surveying his empty jewelry store, and adding, « We hope the crisis will stop, because it is killing the local economy. »

Only a year ago, Turkey and Syria were close allies, as Turkey’s governing Muslim-inspired Justice and Development Party sought to expand the country’s economic influence and grow into a regional power. Their 500-mile border is Turkey’s longest; during the Ottoman Empire, Gaziantep (pronounced gahz-ee-AHN-tep) was part of Aleppo Province. For its part, Syria remains suffused with Turkish influence, from Ottoman architecture to the continuing popularity of Turkish soap operas. Trade between the two countries had more than tripled since 2006, to $2.5 billion in 2010.

Turkish officials tried for months to persuade President Bashar al-Assad to halt the violent crackdown against a civilian uprising that began in March, but finally, and emphatically, turned against the Syrian government.

In combination with sanctions imposed by the Arab League, the European Union and the United States, Turkey’s own tough measures — including freezing the Syrian government’s assets — are slowly beginning to choke Mr. Assad’s rule.

But businesspeople here complain that the rupture cuts both ways.

On Monday, more than 150 Turkish truck drivers protested after they were forced to leave their vehicles in Syria and walk to the Turkish border; Damascus had closed down its crossing near Urfa, in eastern Turkey. The drivers told Turkey’s NTV news channel that Syrian looters had stolen their tires and batteries. Turkish companies, which relied on Syria as a transit route to the Middle East, have begun bypassing Syria, shipping goods via Iraq and the Mediterranean instead.

Syria last week unilaterally suspended its free trade agreement with Turkey, retaliating to the Turkish sanctions by introducing taxes of up to 30 cents on Turkish goods entering Syria. Turkey did the same.

Here in this large industrial center of 1.7 million people, everyone from olive vendors to owners of large textile conglomerates complained that the shifting geopolitics was proving bad for business, even if, as Turkey’s economy minister, Zafer Caglayan, said last week, Syria suffers more than Turkey, which is its second-largest export market after China.

Turkish sellers are harder hit than buyers: imports from Syria amounted to just 0.3 percent of Turkey’s total last year, while 10.6 percent of Syria’s came from Turkey.

Turkey’s decision to become the voice of regional outrage against the Assad government has also divided the identities of some in a city where Turkish and Arab culture have commingled for centuries.

Emre Hadimogullari, 22, an electrical engineering student in Gaziantep, is so irate at the Turkish government’s policy in Syria that he has grown a long beard in protest. Mr. Hadimogullari is an Alawite whose grandparents found themselves Turkish citizens when his hometown, Samandag, formerly part of Syria, was ceded to Turkey in 1923. Mr. Hadimogullari expressed a kinship with Mr. Assad, also an Alawite, and said he believed that the reports of atrocities in Syria were exaggerated. Turkey, he insisted, should stop playing the part of regional police officer.

« Turkey should mind its own business and stop interfering in another country’s affairs, » he said.

Huseyin Qebed, a marketing analyst from Aleppo and one of few Syrians remaining in Gaziantep, said the crisis had not harmed his relationship with his Turkish friends, though these days he avoided talking about politics. The Turkish sanctions, he added, were harming all Syrians, including the demonstrators whom Turkey purported to support. « The sanctions won’t solve anything, » he said.

« Costs are rising for everyone. »

Turkish businesspeople here also questioned the wisdom of sanctions, even as they acknowledged that Mr. Assad’s brutality could not go unanswered.

Cengiz Akinal, vice president of Akinal Bella, a large shoe manufacturer that imports bows for its shoes from artisans in Syria, said that the Turkish tax increase on goods from Syria was forcing him to import bows from China. On the upside, he said, Arab League countries boycotting Syrian shoe companies were turning to his.

Mr. Akinal, whose ancestors imported leather from Syria during the Ottoman Empire and produced shoes for the sultans, said that Akinal Bella, which exports about 70 percent of its shoes to Middle Eastern countries, had benefited handsomely from Turkey’s courtship of the Arab world. But he warned that Turkey’s newly assertive stance could backfire.

« I want the rebellion in Syria to be over, » he said. « Bad relations with Middle East countries are bad for business. »

Some businesspeople said they expected to wait years before Syria and other countries upended in the Arab Spring, like Egypt and Libya, would stop being buffeted by unrest, rebuild their economies and become attractive markets.

Mehmet Ali Mutafoglu is vice president of the Akteks Group, a large textile company that has two factories in Syria making products such as synthetic yarn and cotton. He sells to the Syrian market as well as to Europe and the Middle East. Syria’s unstable economy had depressed demand there by 40 percent since March, when the uprising began.

Mr. Mutafoglu, who still travels regularly to his Syrian factories, said he had noticed a conspicuous cooling of many Syrians’ ardor for Turkey, which had been intense just months ago, as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan presented a modern Muslim face to the world. « Before the crisis, Syrians loved us, » he said. « If Erdogan had run for election in Syria, he would have won 99 percent of the vote. Now he would get 1 percent. »

Fetullah Askin, general manager of Altinoluk, a travel agency here that used to run four buses daily between Gaziantep and Aleppo, said that now there were none, due to security concerns. To offset the decline, Mr. Askin is promoting trips to Mecca.

Despite the economic sacrifices, Mr. Askin said that the repression of the Assad regime justified the Turkish government’s taking action. « Syrians are our brothers, » he said. « When one brother makes a mistake, we have to try and help him fix it. »

Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting from Istanbul.


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