Red Bull Fuels Islamists Controlling Syrian Border Trade

Turkish traders of everything from Red Bull energy drinks to cement are profiting from Islamist conquests in Syria, while the militants are boosting their coffers with fees from the cross-border business.

Turkey shipped $1.3 billion in goods to Syria through September, the highest nine-month total on record, according to trade statistics published in Ankara last week. The increase came after President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus lost control of most border crossings with Turkey, leaving them to rebel groups such as the Free Syrian Army and Islamic Front, as well as Islamic State extremists.

“Whoever controls either side of any international border claims license to exact tolls and fees,” said Francis Ricciardone, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and now a director at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East in Washington. “Where there is no law, criminal gangs will extort all that the market will bear.”

The exchange of goods reflects how entrenched the Syrian conflict has become and how elusive any peace agreement remains. The fighting, which started in March 2011 and flared into a civil war, has left more than 190,000 people dead and displaced millions, according to the United Nations in August.

While Turkey imposed financial sanctions on Assad three years ago, the trade is legal and shows up in Turkish customs data. Transporters enter a no-man’s land where state control is absent and they pay whoever controls the crossing.

Energy Drinks

“Every day we have four or five trucks carrying Red Bulls to Syria,” Mustafa Yilmaz, owner of Turkish trucking company Cem-Ay Transport, said in a telephone interview on Oct. 28.

More than $260 million this year crossed via Cilvegozu and Oncupinar, the Turkish figures show. They are towns adjacent to Bab al-Salamah and Bab al-Hawa in northern Syria, which are controlled by the Islamic Front, a coalition of militants fighting both the Assad regime and Islamic State. Another $320 million in goods crossed into Syria from nearby Gaziantep, according to the figures.

Buyers on the Syrian side don’t identify themselves to the transporters, Yilmaz said. Goods are then transferred onto Syrian trucks in a 3-kilometer-wide (2 miles) zone at the Cilvegozu crossing, he said.

Turkish Customs Ministry press officer Yakup Bulut said on Nov. 3 nobody was available to comment. The Economy Ministry didn’t respond to written questions this week.

Displaced People

The Aleppo Chamber of Industry rejected the idea of an increase in trade. Fares Shihabi, head of the organization, said imports from Turkey plunged about 90 percent because of the war.

“There are no functioning routes,” he said by telephone from Damascus. “Let’s assume there’s regular trade, there’s no war, they’re not supporting the terrorists and everything is normal. The size of the market has shrunk because 3 to 4 million people are outside the country.”

Aleppo is less than 30 miles as the crow flies from the Cilvegozu border crossing. Shihabi’s views contrast with Ali Altinel, a partner at Syrian Trade Office, a business consultancy in Aleppo. Demand for Turkish goods is so high that trucks can wait five days at the frontier, he said.

“The Syrian state takes 40 percent in taxes, but in other areas there’s no such thing,” Altinel said by phone from the Turkish port city of Mersin on Oct. 28. “Islamic State also takes its extortion fees, everyone does. As long as people are getting paid, there’s no danger.”

Turkish Policy

While the U.S. has pushed Turkey to join the fight against Islamists across the border, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says his nation will participate only if the U.S.-led coalition also makes plans to topple Assad.

Turkey allowed Kurdish fighters from northern Iraq to travel to the Syrian city of Kobani to help defend it against Islamic State. Erdogan is also advocating training and arming fighters from the Free Syrian Army, which cooperates with Islamist fighters to control some of the border points with Turkey, according to Charles Lister, a specialist in Middle East insurgents at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.

“Groups are widely known to take transit fees from incoming trucks and this has come to represent a key internal revenue stream,” he said by e-mail this week. “This is unfortunately reinforcing the war economy that rebel groups have become so dependent upon.”

Deliberate Effort

The surge in exports may represent a “success story” in that the U.S. and other suppliers of humanitarian relief to Syria are “deliberately procuring as much as possible from the Turkish economy,” according to Ricciardone, the former ambassador. That’s part of a concerted effort to offset some of the costs of the war, he said.

Turkish exports to Syria were $1.3 billion in 2011, the year Syria’s civil war began, then fell to $391 million a year later, according to official data. Erdogan said Nov. 3 that Turkey has spent $4.5 billion hosting more than a million refugees in the country.

The latest records from Turkey’s statistics agency now show everything from vegetable oils to motorcycles being shipped into Syria. The largest amount was listed in a miscellaneous category titled “personal household goods, provisions.”

Some of that recent increase may also reflect Syrian industrialists switching factories to Turkey since 2011 and then exporting products back home.

No Choice

“Many Syrian businessmen moved their production lock, stock and barrel to Turkey because it is safer,” Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, said by e-mail on Nov. 3. “The war is damaging so much of the infrastructure and the agricultural sector that the Syrians have no other choice but to increase their imports from Turkey.”

In choosing to continue doing business with armed groups at the border, Turkey is accepting the reality that it may not have an official government counterpart to deal with in Syria for some time, according to Nihat Ali Ozcan, an analyst at the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation.

“Turkey will probably have to live with non-state actors on its southern border maybe for a decade, if not more,” Ozcan said in a phone interview on Nov. 3. “Merchants are forced to deal with several different groups, like in the Middle Ages, as their goods pass through their territory.”

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