Trade booms in Turkey-Syria border area amid international aid row

Syrian rivals trade pistachios, building materials and more after UN fails to renew agreement allowing the flow of relief supplies

Vehicles imported from Europe through Turkey at Al-Hamam border crossing in Syria. AFP
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Lorry fleet owner Majed Ahmad flips through a list of tariffs issued by a pro-Turkish administration in north-west Syria.

The booklet lists a fee for an array of items. For example, for every 1,000 chicks brought into Syria, a fee of $7 is added on top, a bargain compared with $28 on each cow.

“Everything is allowed in, except contraband,” Mr Ahmad says at his office in the Turkish border city of Kilis.

He is a main player in transporting goods from Turkey into areas ruled by divided opponents of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

The region, home to millions of refugees, relies on Turkish goods to survive, ranging from steel and cement to food staples such as sugar and cooking oil.

Each group that controls territory his lorries pass through has different rules, regulations and kickbacks required to import and export goods.

Politically opposed rebel groups even cordially handle goods over checkpoints in the pursuit of profit and securing power, Mr Ahmad, traders and other sources in the area say.

These trade links became ever more important last week after the UN Security Council failed to agree on the renewal of humanitarian aid flows from Turkey to border areas outside the President’s control, mainly through the Bab Al Hawa border crossing, west of Kilis.

But trade continues unabated across a dozen official and unofficial crossings along or near the 900km border with Turkey.

The flow of goods between areas controlled by Syrian factions with a history of hostility reflects the lure of money and the spread of a war economy in the country for more than a decade.

Groups that have been fighting each other have put aside their ideological differences in the pursuit of profit and a steady income stream, and this has contributed to solidifying their power.

Mr Ahmad, a Syrian living in Turkey, is one of many taking advantage of the power vacuum left by Mr Al Assad's loss of territory since the start of the 2011 revolt and the ensuing brutal clampdown.

As well as importing crucial goods from Turkey into Syria, Mr Ahmad transports goods from rebel-held areas in northern Syria to Turkey, Europe and the Middle East.

The cargo on his lorries is diverse; once the pistachio season starts in September, he will be sending the nuts to Germany from the Aleppo countryside.

He has shipped laurel leaves and dried coriander from areas run by a Kurdish militia in Syria’s Euphrates valley through Turkey to Morocco.

The US-supported militia, called the People Protection Units, or YPG, is opposed to Turkey. The laurel and coriander went through territory controlled by rival militias supported by Ankara.

“Everyone makes a cut,” Mr Ahmad says.

Several crossings

The border areas remain outside Mr Al Assad's grip despite Russian intervention on his side in 2015 because of the US military presence and Turkish security interests.

Mr Ahmad’s lorries operate in areas held by groups as diverse the YPG, which is inspired by Marxism-Leninism, in the north-east to an Al Qaeda offshoot, Tahrir Al Sham, in the north-west.

An administration likened to a Turkish proxy, called the Syrian National Army, controls a strip that contains the city of Azaz, on the opposite side of the Kilis crossing.

The Syrian National Army mainly comprises rebels who fought the regime and were defeated after the Russian intervention on Mr Assad’s side in 2015.

The containers go through an array of crossings between Syria and Turkey and between territories held by the factions themselves, where the merchandise is taxed by local powers on the ground.

A Syrian merchant based in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, said he regularly sends Turkish flour on Mr Ahmed's lorries to Azaz, from where it is distributed across northern Syria.

Mr Ahmad says that some of the importers are experienced while others are new to the scene, employing their connections to the local armed actors to squeeze other traders out.

He says canned food he transports to Idlib province is only allowed in if it is destined for traders approved by Tahrir Al Sham.

In Azaz, he says sugar imports are dominated by Issam Sharabati, an experienced commodities trader.

He operated in Aleppo before the uprising, supported it and moved to the countryside after it fell to the Syrian military and pro-Iranian militia in 2016.

“He is a rare example who dominates the market because of his expertise,” says Mr Ahmad.

The crossing at Kilis is situated on a farming road, with pistachio trees and wheat planted on the side, a mirror of the Syrian side, which was handed to the Syrian National Army after Turkey expelled the YPG from the area in 2015.

Lorries bearing Turkish number plates emerge slowly from the crossing amid scorching heat, watched by Turkish security personnel in a camp at the crossing.

Syrian lorries are not allowed into Turkey and Mr Ahmad, who is from Azaz, has a Turkish partner in Kilis.

However, he owns 100 lorries inside Syria, which he uses to ferry the Turkish goods – once they arrive in Azaz – to areas further to the east, controlled by the YPG.

The goods are also smuggled into areas further south that are with Damascus, through unofficial border crossings.

These goods are subject of transit fees as well as import fees by the Kurdish-controlled administration and other factions that let the lorries through.

An official in the administration, who did not want to be named, confirmed the trade, saying that goods from Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan were also available in the area.

At Azaz, the transit fee for 1,000 chicks is $10 and $30 for a cow.

Mr Ahmed also sends merchandise to Idlib, which is largely controlled by Tahrir Al Sham.

Although Turkey has open channels with the militant group, it has been more focused on developing the strip around Azaz, where it is seen as having the full obedience of the Syrian National Army.

Syrian opposition sources say Turkey has been quietly cleansing its zone of the influence of actors that do not owe it complete obedience.

In January, a Turkish drone strike killed Saddam Moussa, a warlord affiliated with Tahrir Al Sham who was running the Jarablus border crossing with Turkey, the sources say.

But Tahrir Al Sham still has influence in the Turkish proxy zone, with a militia called Al Hamzat in control of unofficial crossings, alongside the Assad government.

Turkey has set up an industrial zone near Al Rai in 2021, another crossing south-east of Kilis and offered Syrian investors in the zone special passes to travel to Turkey, as well as electricity subsidies for their factories.

One Syrian investor who bought land in the zone this year at $20 a square metre, says plastic goods and cables are already being produced.

“Being able to cross the border to do business is alone worth it,” he says.

Updated: July 18, 2023, 9:20 AM