Turkey's businessmen rue government stance on Syria

Sanko Park Mall in Gaziantep
Image caption The Sanko Park Mall is quiet on Fridays, the day Syrians used to come

There is a joke going around business circles in the south-eastern Turkish city of Gaziantep these days. "We no longer have zero problems with our neighbours," it goes, "we now have zero neighbours without problems."

It is an ironic reference to the new foreign policy championed by the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), which was given the title "Zero Problems With Neighbours" by its architect, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

This aimed to eliminate the historic tensions which had kept Turkey in a state of hostility with all its neighbours, and rebuild relations based on trade.

It was a roaring success. Trade with the Middle Eastern region expanded quickly, especially with Iraq and Syria, the two Arab countries on Turkey's south-eastern border.

Closer political ties followed. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan established a close personal rapport with President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the two countries abolished visas, and a flood of tourists came both ways across the border.

'Nobody comes'

The events this year have turned that policy on its head.

After initially trying to persuade President Assad to embrace reform, the Turkish government is now leading those countries calling for him to go. The free trade agreement has been torn up. Tourism has all but stopped.

Image caption Gaziantep, sixth largest city in Turkey, has been one of the biggest losers from the Arab uprisings

Gaziantep was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the new foreign policy, and it is now one of the biggest losers from the Arab uprisings.

It is now the sixth largest city in Turkey, with important textile, construction material and food processing industries that have thrived on access to Middle East markets. New housing is being built all over the city.

Its hotel and retail businesses did just as well out of Syrian visitors.

The two-year-old Sanko Park Mall, the most luxurious in the region, was built largely to cater for Syrian shoppers. It is strikingly quiet on Fridays, the day the Syrians used to come.

"Before the Arab Spring the city was full of Syrian people here for the weekend, staying in the hotels a couple of days, shopping, spending money," says Mehmet Ali Mutafoglu, whose family runs Akteks, one of the city's big textile firms.

"But now, since the critical situation between the two governments, nobody is coming over to Turkey."

Akteks owns two factories in Aleppo, in northern Syria, and has seen its business contract by 30-40%.

Exports stalled

It is not just the collapse of trade with Syria which has hit Gaziantep's manufacturers.

Many of the city's exports to other Middle Eastern countries go through Syria, which has a border with Turkey stretching more than 800km (500 miles).

That route has become more dangerous and expensive. New fees are being imposed on Turkish trucks, and they have occasionally been shot at by Syrian troops.

Image caption Turkey shares an 800km-long border with Syria

"Almost 80% of our business with Syria has stopped," says Adnan Altunkaya, whose family owns a big food and drinks producer.

"It's because of the border. There's no security, and you often don't get paid at all."

"Sometimes they close the customs gates, and your trucks are stuck there - then you have to pay, and that increases the cost of transport."

At the Besler group, one of Turkey's biggest food processors, they have started exploring alternative routes for their products.

Kemal Cakmak, one of the five brothers who founded the company, now runs their giant pasta factory, using the high-quality durum wheat that grows in this part of Turkey.

He says some trucks are now going to the Middle East via Iraq, although this is a much longer and more expensive route.

Mr Cakmak is also going to try sending a consignment of pasta to Lebanon on ships that the government has promised to help exporters.

'No dialogue'

These entrepreneurs are all natural supporters of the AKP. It is the most business-friendly party in modern Turkish history, and its economic record is the key to its electoral success.

Image caption Turkish officials have explained that they had no choice but to back the Syrian opposition

So its decision to turn its back on President Assad has left some Gaziantep businessmen bewildered.

"If you have a problem with your neighbour, you try to fix it," says Mr Mutsfoglu.

"You don't cut all the connections with your neighbour. But now there's no dialogue between Turkey and Syria. It's not good for the countries, it's not good for business, it's not good for the people living in the cities."

Turkey's Economy Minister, Zafer Caglayan, who came to open a new office for the regional exporters' association, brushed these concerns away.

Most trade with Syria was continuing, Mr Caglayan said, and the government was looking for alternative routes for exports. He trusted the people of Gaziantep to be patient, he added.

But the alternatives - going by ship or through Iraq - were dismissed by most of the manufacturers I met as too slow and too expensive. They would make their products uncompetitive, they said.

In the main food market, traders were feeling the loss of Syrian business, but here there was more sympathy for the government's position.

Image caption Gaziantep's factories are exploring alternative export routes and markets for their products

Many of them agreed that Turkey must take a stand in support of the protesters in Syria.

With a decisive third election victory under its belt last June, the AKP can probably afford to take risks with its entrepreneurial supporters.

Turkish officials have explained that they had no choice but to back the Syrian opposition.

They believe President Assad's days are numbered, and that the events of 2011 have taught Turkey that it must put itself on the right side of history.

But this does mean the "Zero Problems" foreign policy, which has shaped Turkey's relations with its neighbours for a decade, has been shelved for now, and it is not clear yet what will take its place.

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