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Syrian conflict sparks boom for border smugglers 9 mars 2012

Posted by Acturca in Economy / Economie, Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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Financial Times (UK) Friday, March 9, 2012, p. 6

Michael Peel in Hacipasa and Daniel Dombey in Istanbul

The breakdown of law and order has opened up lucrative opportunities, say Michael Peel and Daniel Dombey

As half a dozen tractors laden with smuggled fuel barrelled down the muddy track from the Syrian border, a Turkish farmer named Abdou pointed at the incoming convoy with a grin.

« This smuggling was very hard to do, » said Abdou, tapping the tips of his fingers in relish at the money to be earned from undercutting the Turkish market by using subsidised Syrian petroleum products.

« But now it is nice. »

The jubilation on the Turkish side of the river that divides the countries made for an unsettling contrast with the continued killing in the villages, towns and cities beyond the far bank. It also showed how Syria’s conflict has spawned a mini-boom in war profiteering on longstanding smuggling routes along the vast frontier with Turkey, as growing logistical chaos and shifting political loyalties have created lucrative new opportunities in contraband.

As a Hacipasa man who called himself Abu Mohammed said jokingly: « I don’t think there is a border here. »

Northern Syria’s 900km frontier with Turkey is a crucial conduit for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, his opponents and ordinary Syrians. It offers a passage for essential supplies, weapons and people between a stable country on the edge of Europe and a region of Syria that is the site of both Aleppo, the mercantile capital, and a battle for control between government security forces and the armed and unarmed opposition.

The breakdown of law and order seen across Syria since the uprising began almost a year ago is pronounced in the north, creating new space for smugglers to move goods outside networks established and controlled by Assad regime members.

Tahir, a young Syrian man by the Hacipasa riverbank, said he earned 100 Turkish lira a day from contraband fuel, managing to overcome fuel shortages and evade troops.

« There is no military on the borderline, » he said. « Because all the soldiers are in the cities. »

The conflict has also offered rewards to the people of Hacipasa, a remote community where smuggling is such a way of life that locals offer visitors cigarettes from Syrian packs priced almost 50 per cent cheaper than their Turkish counterparts.

One man named Arif said that for the past one and a half months he had risked the fighting and hijacking reported on Syria’s roads to bring across high value vehicle parts.

« I am trying to make lots of money, » he said, explaining that he could buy headlamps for TL150 in Syria and offload them for double that in Turkey.

« I bring them in from Syria and sell them very expensive. »

Smuggling has long been widespread on the Turkish border and oil contraband is particularly lucrative, since Turkey has few hydrocarbon resources and petroleum prices are among the highest in the world. The trade is broadly tolerated in parts of the southeast, which includes some of the poorest areas of the country, because of a lack of jobs.

Memet Faruk Hansa, mayor of Hacipasa, whose office stands on the tractor route, said: « All the families in this village are farmers. So when they see that petrol brings more money than farming, all of them start to work with petrol. »

The Turkish armed forces often alert smugglers to imminent military operations against the Kurdistan Workers party, or PKK – a step they failed to take in December, when an air strike mistakenly killed 34 smugglers crossing into the country from Iraq with donkeys laden with plastic cans full of fuel oil.

Although the incident sparked outrage in Turkey, villagers returned to smuggling as soon as the mourning period was over.

In Hacipasa, many local people said the military had begun turning a blinder eye than usual to the illicit traffic in the past few months.

A local Turkish official denied this and said the army was vigorous in fighting a trade that was becoming harder for smugglers, because the Syrian military was increasingly being deployed at the frontier and laying landmines there. « If they [petrol smugglers] are so sure of themselves, let them take it in the day in front of the security personnel, » the official said.

The previous afternoon, Abdou, Tahir and their fellow smugglers had been happily shuttling back and forth to the river bank in broad daylight, with tractors coming or going at least every couple of minutes. They were cashing in as much as they could, aware that they could soon be blocked by the next shift in the fast-moving and unpredictable conflict across the water.
« Nobody knows how long it will last, » said Tahir. « Maybe tomorrow they will stop it. »

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