Syria to Establish Turkish Boycott Office

The Syrian Ministry of Economy is preparing to establish a Turkish boycott office that will blacklist all the Turkish companies accused of “harming the Syrian economy.”

Listed companies will be banned from doing business in Syria or with Syrian companies.

Syrian officials accuse the Turkish Government of contributing to the looting of hundreds of factories in Aleppo and of enabling the export of Syrian crude oil from opposition-held areas as well as of contributing to the destruction of the Syrian economy by providing support to the opposition.

The head of the Federation of Syrian Chambers of Industry, Fares Shehabi, who is based in Aleppo, has been particularly vocal in his condemnations of the Turkish government. Last year he said that the establishment of a boycott bureau targeting Turkish companies was a request from the Federation.

Mr Shehabi added then that he would like the boycott to include any Turkish company “that supports the Erdogan government or that financed his election campaign.” “Companies that smuggled products into Syria should also be blacklisted,” Mr Shehabi added.

Turkey’s Government has been among the staunchest supporters of the Syrian uprising, providing a logistical base for the opposition fighting the regime, including the Free Syrian Army, serving as a conduit for the supply of arms and equipment, but also acting as a host for hundreds of thousands of refugees and for countless opposition parties and civil society organisations.

In 2013, Turkish exports to Syria actually doubled compared to 2012, from $497 million to $1 billion, probably because of the destruction of the economy in the north of Syria and the need to import products to meet the demand of the population.

For almost two years, the Syrian Government has been threatening to establish a boycott office but in practice, enforcing a boycott is likely to prove complicated.

First of all, Turkish investments in Syria have already almost entirely stopped. Secondly, bilateral trade between the two countries is now taking place almost exclusively along Syria’s northern border, which is entirely outside the control of the Syrian authorities.

The Turkish Boycott Office may be a bit similar to the Israel Boycott Office, an institution affiliated to the Arab League, which bans foreign companies doing business with Israel from entering Arab markets.

However, while the Israel Boycott Office is justified by the occupation of Palestine and by the fact that there aren’t anyway any relations between Syria and the State of Israel, in the case of Turkey the Syrian authorities have always been keen to stress that they are in conflict with the Turkish Government and not Turkey as a country and society.

Some segments of the Turkish population continues to support the regime and the Syrian regime will need to make sure that the boycott does not hurt them.

While the looting of factories has been widespread in the region of Aleppo, in practice looting and other forms of illegal business activities have taken place across Syria. The regime, through its various militias, is accused by the opposition of having looted and destroyed countless factories but also residential homes throughout Syria. However, no boycott office targeting these militias is likely to be established any time soon.

Note: This article appeared first in April 2014 in The Syrian Observer

What if our revolution was also a civil war?

It has become increasingly common for western journalists and commentators to describe the Syrian revolution as a civil war. Syrians of all opinions, however, dispute this definition to a large extent. The expression raises, indeed, many parallels with the devastating conflicts in neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq and adopting it means accepting that our country is on the way to a similar fate. For supporters of the revolution, the expression also carries the serious risk of equating the two warring parties in terms of the legitimacy of their struggle. In the eyes of many, when two parties fight a civil war they become equally responsible for the destruction of their country and equally legitimate in their claim to represent the interests of the population.

It needs not be so, however, and reminding everyone that the Spanish conflict, which lasted from 1936 to 1939 and saw republicans on the one side fight fascists on the other, is routinely defined as a civil war, will make it easier to digest this definition. In other words describing a conflict as a civil war does not necessarily mean that the two parties are equally legitimate in their claims to fight for the bettering of their country and population.

What one cannot deny is that Syria is now witnessing a struggle that has turned largely armed; that on both sides the men fighting and dying are overwhelmingly Syrians – although the regional and international dimensions of the conflict are clear to everyone; and that both parties benefit from the support of significant segments of the population.

For us supporting the revolution, it has been difficult to understand how that many Syrians continue to support the regime. Isn’t the struggle for freedom, justice and dignity a legitimate one? Shouldn’t the concepts of democracy and rule of law be accepted by everyone because they are inclusive of all? Don’t regime supporters see the brutality and viciousness exercised by the regime against their fellow countrymen? Don’t they realise that the regime is only fighting in order to continue to rule the country at any cost, including at the cost of depriving all Syrians, including those that support it, from their basic rights to freedom, justice and dignity?

Well, what we have to admit is that the struggle going on in Syria is not only about these issues – and I am not talking here of the international dimensions of the conflict.

Democracy, for one, is seen by many, in particular members of religious and ethnic minorities, as a potential threat. The concept is perceived in the following manner: democracy is strictly about the ballot box; the ballot box means the unchecked rule of the majority; the majority is necessarily Sunni or Arab. As a consequence, from Kurds to the Christians or the Druze, these minorities have largely remained on the sidelines of the revolution.

The struggle for justice and dignity is no less a threat to other segments of the population. The entry into Aleppo of the opposition in the summer of 2012, for instance, was particularly telling of these divides. The conflict between the wealthy city and its underdeveloped and poor rural backyard was laid bare and depending on whose perspective you adopted, Aleppo was either being “liberated” or “occupied”.

As to the Alawites, much has already been written on the subject and on the ties of the community to the Syrian state, its bureaucracy, security services and army, and hence the fear of losing these privileges.

What matters today is that the revolution has uncovered the many fault lines of Syrian society and if Syrians want to overcome them, they will need to find a way to address these divides. The issues at stake that must be debated now, not later, include the rights of the minorities, the role of the central state and the extent of a potential decentralization, the economic and social crisis, and the management of the transition, among many other issues.

None of the above changes the fact that the values for which the revolution is being fought are profoundly fair and legitimate and that the demise of the regime is a condition for any meaningful and lasting solution to the conflict.

However, accepting that our revolution is also, to a certain degree, a civil war, and understanding what political challenges and compromises that entails, are indispensable steps if we want our revolution to succeed and to live together again.


Note: An Arabic translation of this article appeared first in September 2013 in An-Nahar, a Lebanese daily

Aleppo out of work

It took almost a full year before Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city by population, became an active part of the popular uprising that began engulfing the country in March 2011; but when it did, events very quickly took a violent turn. This summer has seen thousands killed in armed clashes and bombings, more than 200,000 inhabitants are estimated to have fled the city and several districts are being levelled under daily bombardment. ‘Normal life’ is at an almost total standstill throughout the metropolis.

Aleppo is also Syria’s manufacturing hub, and according to the head of the Aleppo Chamber of Industry, Fares Shihabi, by mid-August all the plants located in the industrial area of Sheikh Najjar, a large complex located outside the city’s boundaries, had stopped production because of the rising insecurity. Factories could not be protected and employees feared going to their workplace, while the supply of inputs and the distribution of finished products became almost impossible — that equals more than 600 factories and 40,000 workers in the industrial city that are estimated to be out of work. Should the violence last it is likely that shortages of all kinds of products will occur across the country. Already, medical supplies are threatened and the World Health Organization has warned of drugs shortages — with some 20 companies producing a wide range of medicines, Aleppo is a major center for pharmaceutical production in Syria.

Until the recent rise in violence, Aleppo had managed to escape some of the worst economic consequences of the uprising. Its manufacturers, in particular, benefitted from a number of favorable circumstances. The suspension of the free trade area with Turkey, which was decided after Syria’s northern neighbor imposed sanctions last December, and the increase in customs tariffs decided by the government earlier this year, helped reduce competition in the local market. Likewise, depreciation of the Syrian pound, which has lost some 50 percent of its value compared to the United States dollar in the last year and a half, temporarily spurred increased exports to neighboring Iraq.

Though it has fallen well behind Damascus in terms of overall wealth, Aleppo had long been Syria’s economic capital. Its gradual decline began in the early 1920s when the demarcation of the country’s borders cut its links with its Turkish hinterland, followed by the nationalizations of the late 1950s and early 1960s that stripped the Syrian bourgeoisie, then mainly based in Aleppo, of its land and other assets.

However, it was only in the early 1970s that the balance tipped clearly in favor of Damascus with the increasing centralization of the Syrian state and the growing state capitalism imposed by then President Hafez al-Assad. From then on, the closer investors were to the center of power in Damascus, the luckier they were in winning large government contracts, which represented a large source of revenues and profits for both them and the middlemen/bureaucrats that helped them conclude the deals.

It is therefore no surprise that in the late 1970s, when protests demanding more political freedoms and democratic change began across the country, Aleppo rose — only to see its protest movement and that of neighboring Hama ferociously crushed by the government — while Damascus watched. Only when two decades later Bashar al-Assad reached power and began a policy of economic and trade liberalization, did the city regain some of its lost wealth. The improvement of ties with neighboring Turkey, in particular, helped boost trade, tourism and investment. After decades of marginalization, Aleppo saw its businesses thrive again and sought stability, calm and order. This was not, however, to last, and the city, as most other parts of the country, is now engulfed in an uprising that is unlikely to end anytime soon.

The profound economic, social and political changes likely to emerge from the revolution will force a redefinition of the country’s economic model and the role of the state, of the links between the center and the periphery and of the balance between trade and production. Whether Aleppo will lose again from these changes, as it has with most other dramatic turns of the last century, or whether it will adapt successfully to the situation as it evolves, remains to be seen.

Note: This article appeared first in the September 2012 edition of Executive Magazine