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Syria fighting hurts Turkish border city

Marketplace Contributor Aug 21, 2012

Syria fighting hurts Turkish border city

Marketplace Contributor Aug 21, 2012

Tess Vigeland: Today, several human rights groups and aid organizations called on the United Nations Security Council to do something about the growing humanitarian crisis in Syria. They warned one and a half million Syrians are now displaced within their own country — cut off from the basics of food and medical care. Continuing fighting in Aleppo and other cities has devastated Syria, but it’s also causing serious economic problems in parts of its northern neighbor, Turkey.

Reese Erlich reports from Antakya, near the Syrian border.

Reese Erlich: The owner of a local trucking firm walks up the stone stairway of his almost empty office building. Ali Ozdemir says business was booming until six months ago. His company ferried Turkish goods through Syria and on to Lebanon and Jordan — 400 trucks per day flowed back and forth. Then, last November, someone inside Syria shot up his trucks.

Ali Ozdemir: Our trucks were not badly damaged. But other company’s trucks were extremely damaged.

Erlich: Not enough security on the road?

Ozdemir: There is no security.

Ozdemir says the Syrian military attacked his and other trucks in retaliation for Turkish government support for Syrian rebels. Mutual recriminations ended cross-border trade. Ozdemir says the result is a mini depression here in Antakya.

Ozdemir: We are the nearest place to Syria. Trade exchange, it was very, very big between Antakya and Syria. But after the war started, it stopped.

Like most Turks, Ozdemir supports the Syrian opposition and hopes Syrian President Bashar al Assad will be overthrown soon.

Ozdemir: No, I don’t think Assad will stay as president after what he did.

But some Turkish business people have a different opinion. On Antakya’s main shopping street, many store owners talk of the stability Assad brought to Syria. They remember fondly the thousands of affluent Syrian tourists who’d come here, buy their stuff and fill up local restaurants. Now, these visitors are just a memory.

Clothing store owner Mohammad Helu puts some T-shirts in a plastic bag, one of his few sales today. He blames his economic troubles on the Turkish government’s support for the rebels.

Mohammad Helu: I don’t like the Turkish policy because my business has gone down. I’m not saying I’m pro- or anti-Assad. By backing the rebels, trade with Syria has stopped, and so has my business.

But not all business people are suffering because of the upheaval in Syria.

Gizam Oral opens the door to her medical supply company in Antakya. She says business is booming as people buy medical supplies and then smuggle them over the border to help the Syrian rebels. Oral says Turkish hospitals and foreign-aid groups are also buying huge quantities of supplies to help some 60,000 Syrian refugees who have flooded into Turkey.

Gizam Oral: Last year we were just working with government hospitals and pharmacies, and that’s all. But now there are lots of people coming here to buy some things. If you compare with last year, it is doing better.

Better in terms of business at least. But Oral wishes the fighting in neighboring Syria would stop. She fears Syria’s ethnic and religious conflicts could will spill over to Antakya.

Oral: We are all living in here like Sunni, Christian people, Jewish people. We are all living together. We are afraid this situation.

Fear is palpable here — fear for personal safety and fear for the health of an economy that has always depended on the free flow of peoples between Syria and Turkey.

In Antakya, I’m Reese Erlich for Marketplace.

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