/ 7 December 2011

Turkey to open trade routes bypassing Syria

Turkey said on Wednesday it would begin bypassing trade routes through Syria this week, exporting to Egypt by sea and overland via Iraq following a breakdown in ties and rising violence in its southern neighbour.

Turkey’s Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan also said Damascus had started allowing Turkish trucks to enter Syria on Tuesday after blocking their entry last week in retaliation for sanctions imposed by Ankara.

While Turkey is still trading with Syria, it has been seeking new routes to the Middle East since Ankara stepped up criticism of President Bashar al-Assad for his crackdown on a popular uprising that began in March.

“It is very easy for us to bypass Syria but we had preferred not to do this. We had still wanted to transit our trade through Syria and let the Syrian economy make money out of this,” Caglayan told Turkish TV channel CNBC-e.

“But they wanted it this way. I say again, whatever they do they will suffer more than Turkey every time. To do trade with the Middle East and the Gulf, [we] do not have to go through Syria. Our plans A, B and C are already ready,” he added.

Caglayan said cargo ships would start operating between Turkey’s southern Mediterranean port of Mersin and Alexandria in Egypt on Thursday. Trucks would also begin crossing into Iraq.

Muslim Turkey was once one of Syria’s closest regional allies, and Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan had built a strong rapport with al-Assad.

But as the violence grew worse and al-Assad ignored Erdogan’s advice to halt the crackdown on protesters and make urgent reforms, relations became increasingly frosty and Erdogan has now bluntly told al-Assad he should quit.

Turkey now hosts Syrian military defectors and an umbrella Syrian opposition group.

Last week, Turkey announced a list of economic sanctions on Syria it said would target the government, including freezing state assets and imposing a travel ban on senior officials as well as suspending financial transactions.

Syria responded over the weekend by suspending a free trade agreement between the two countries, as well as imposing a 30% tariff on all Turkish imports and prohibitive duties on fuel and freight.

Turkey shrugged off the decision saying the Syrian people would be the ones that suffered most.

New tariffs
Later on Wednesday, Turkish private broadcaster NTV quoted the country’s trade minister as saying Ankara would impose new tariffs of its own on Syrian goods, in apparent retaliation.

“We will place a 30% tax on all goods coming from Syria,” NTV quoted Customs and Trade Minister Hayati Yazici as saying. It gave no further details and the ministry could not be immediately reached for comment.

Caglayan said Damascus had started blocking Turkish trucks from crossing into Syria last week in retaliation for Ankara’s sanctions but began allowing them to cross again on Tuesday after Turkey decided to pursue alternative routes.

“As soon as we started implementing steps [to open new routes] yesterday evening, the Syrian government immediately started allowing our trucks to pass,” he said.

Turkey is a major trading partner for Syria with bilateral trade last year totalling about $2.5-billion. Syria received more than 10% of its imports from Turkey in 2010 while imports from Syria made up only 0.3% of Turkey’s total imports, Caglayan said this week.

On November 17, Caglayan said that while exports to Syria had risen nearly 4% in the first nine months of 2011, October and November figures had shown a 10% drop compared with last year as the increasing violence put off Turkish firms. — Reuters