Ankara is Stealing Syrian Crops

Turkey’s Expanding Control Over Northern Syria’s Economy
Syrian Kurdish farmers harvest olives in a field in the Baadinli area, in the rebel-held northern sector of Syria's Aleppo province, near the border with Turkey, on November 10, 2020. (Getty)

As the current economic crisis mounts in Turkey, Syrian lands in the northern east and west territories controlled by Ankara are making up for the Turkish fiscal deficit.  Additionally, these areas have become new markets for Turkish products as well as a source of food and agricultural imports.

In 2019 Syrian exports to Turkey amounted to more than $117 million, an amount less than previous years according to the International Trade Center, which has not yet released its 2020 annual report. Some economists doubt the number because Ankara does not disclose data for its Syrian exports.

“Syrian exports to Turkey are not classified as imports by Ankara as a result of Turkish control of Syrian territory.   This is especially so as no official data is released in this regard,” said Chalang Omar, an    academic scholar and economist.

He pointed out that “Afrin’s olive oil exports alone to Turkey amounted to $100 million in 2019. How then could the total worth of Turkish imports from Syria be only $117 million in the same year?”

Omar told Majalla, “Syrian products exported to Turkey are not categorized as exports, rather they are confiscated and bought for low prices. This is on top of Ankara’s annexation of the Turkish-controlled region’s economy. Products transported from these Syrian lands to Turkey are not subject to customs, but are directly shipped by Turkish traders and are not labelled as imports from Syria.”

Omar revealed that “the data of Syria’s Ministry of Economy and Foreign Trade does not mention the size of the trade between Damascus and Ankara,” adding that “Ankara officially incorporated the economy of Syrian territories such as Idlib, al-Bab, Jarabulus, Afrin, Ras al-Ayn, and Tell Abyad.”

The economist went on, “These occupied Syrian cities became economically absorbed by Turkey. Obviously, since we can see the Turkish lira exclusively circulating there. Moreover, all economic and service-related decisions are made by Ankara via its provinces. For example, both cities of Ras al-Ayan and Tell Abyad are associated with Turkish Şanlıurfa Province, while Afrin is linked Hatay, and Azaz to Kilis. Ankara doesn’t deny this fact. Moreover, all projects in these areas have been taken over by Turkish companies.”

Markets for Turkish Products

Apparently, Turkey has found a new outlet for its products in its controlled Syrian cities. In 2019, Turkish exports to these regions amounted to $1.8 billion despite severed diplomatic ties between Damascus and Ankara.  Between January and October 2020, Turkish exports were worth $670,895,000.

In this regard, Omar explained, “Statistics compiled by the International Trade Center confirm that Turkish exports to Syria in 2019 were worth $1.8 billion. Turkish products enter the markets of northern Syria via seven border crossings, and then to other regions in the country. Most of the products are food, automotive parts and construction materials.”

He added that “Ankara is the only economic beneficiary of its controlled Syrian lands, as the additional circulation of Turkish currency contributed to the rise of its exchange rate. More importantly, most of these territories are agricultural lands, and their produce is transported to Turkish markets and bought for low prices. Meantime, these Syrian cities have become markets for Turkish products and businesses, as a result of the total absence of Syrian businessmen and companies.”

A Long-term Plan

“Imposing trade in Turkish lira in Ankara-controlled Syrian territories and using these towns as markets for Turkish products hide long-term political aims,” said Musa Özuğurlu, a Turkish political analyst specialized in international relations.

Özuğurlu told Majalla, “Foisting a Turkish economy on these areas is a step towards forming a quasi-state to be under Ankara’s control in the future. I believe that the Turkish master plan in these regions exceeds the economic aspect. The Turkish occupation in Syria has its police, schools, universities and service agencies already in place, apparently to convince the residents to accept everything that is Turkish.”

In addition, he reiterated that “the Turkish project is huge and the economy would allow for more expansion in the region. Both the Syrian lira’s deterioration and Turkish lira’s decline are providing easy access for Turkish businesses, especially since it doesn’t require much money compared to other markets.”

Although the war in Syria has contributed to a foreign trade slowdown, the Turkish economy has a strong presence in Syrian markets. Turkish exports to Syria worth $1.8 billion in 2019 are equal to Turkish exports to Jordan and Lebanon combined. However, Ankara does not announce the volume of its imports from Syria, despite importing wheat and olive oil.

Last January, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights revealed that Ankara was stealing agricultural crops from Syrian territories under its control. The Observatory’s report indicated that “pro-Turkey armed groups moved 20,000 tons of wheat to Şanlıurfa Province from Tell Abyad,” after they had previously seized large quantities of wheat.

According to the Syrian Observatory, the Öz-Duy company transported the wheat to Turkey, where it was stored by the Turkish Grain Board (TMO).

During the past five years, Ankara has been controlling large swaths of Syrian lands following three Turkish military operations. Two of these operations targeted areas controlled by Syrian Democratic Forces which are backed by the US-led alliance against ISIS.

As Turkey controls the geographical strip extending from Idlib to Jarabulus, in addition to Ras al-Ayn and Tell Abyad, these districts have apparently become under Ankara’s official control in view of the facts that Turkish currency is circulating, the Turkish flag is raised, and the Turkish language is used in schools and universities. Moreover, Turkish state-run institutions have been opened such as the post office.

Last February, the International Human Rights Watch described Turkish presence in Ankara-controlled Syrian regions as an “occupation” which was a precedent for an international organization.

A Syrian Kurdish woman holds a branch of an olive tree as Syrian Kurds demonstrate in the northeastern city of Qamishli on January 20, 2021 to protest the Turkish occupation of the Kurdish Syrian city of Afrin, marking three years since Turkey and its Syrian proxies took control of the region in the northern Aleppo province. (Getty)


Displaced Residents’ Harvest

Jiyan Hajji, from Maydanki in the Syrian city of Afrin which is famous for its olive trees, told Majalla, “Turkish forces and pro-Turkish militias have seized 850 olive trees on our lands.”

He said, “Ankara-affiliated armed groups prevented us from returning back to our homes after they took over Afrin and most of its villages in March 2018. Since then, we have not been able to harvest our own olives.”

“Our yearly produce was at least 300 oil tanks, not sure what kind of measurement this is  in addition to the fruit trees which Turkey and its militias also seized, along with our house in the town and another house in Afrin,” he added.

Pro-Turkey armed militias prevented Hajji and his family from returning home and confiscated their properties, allegedly for cooperating with the de facto “autonomous administration” established by Kurds and their local allies in Northern east and west of Syria after the war erupted.

Hajji explained, “It was not just us. There are hundreds and maybe thousands of families from Afrin and its towns who have lost their homes and lands to Ankara and its militias.” He confirmed that, “Since Turkey seized the properties, Kurdish residents have been unable to get to their crops.”

He pointed out that “militias are stealing people’s crops, and if they do not steal it, they buy the olive oil for very low prices. Thus, they seize the region’s harvest of olives and its oil for very low prices and send them to Turkey.”

Hajji, who has been jobless since he left Afrin, called on the international community to mediate the return of displaced residents of Afrin and expel Turkey and its armed forces from the region.

He said, “what happened in Afrin is similar to what happened in Palestine. We might not return back to our homes, but we will never stop our demands for reclaiming them and driving Turkey out.”