Opposition accuses Turkey of selling Syrian olive oil to U.S. market

Representatives from Turkey’s Agricultural Credit Cooperatives (TKK) have visited the United States to market some 90,000 tonnes of olive oil produced in northern Syria’s Afrin province, Iraqi Kurdish news outlet Rudaw reported on Thursday.

Deputy chairman of the main opposition Republican people’s Party (CHP) Ünal Çeviköz said the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army had stolen olive trees from the locals, and the oil being exported to the West over Turkey was not contributing to “maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity,” a goal Turkish authorities have cited as one of the reasons for Turkey’s military incursions into the war-torn country.

Turkey has controlled Afrin since its 2018 Operation Olive Branch, and has been accused of transporting olive oil processed in Syria to be bottled in Turkey, branded a Turkish product, and sold via Turkish intermediaries. Last year, Swedish conservative deputy Bernhard Guhl said Turkey had been “raiding” Afrin’s olives and marketed the end product to the European Union.

Chairman of southern border province Hatay’s Chamber of Commerce Hikmet Çinçin, speaking at the meeting organised by the CHP, said the oil was brought to Turkey under a regime of domestic processing, on the condition that it be sold only to foreign markets. According to the chairman, this condition has been violated to the detriment of Turkish olive farmers.

The TTK has been given an exceptional authority to import the olive oil, violating Turkey’s competition laws, Çinçin said, adding that local companies could not obtain the necessary licence.

TTK is a network of cooperatives made up of independent farmers, but operated under Ziraat Bank, a public bank established to support Turkey’s farmers, until 1977 and was governed by the Agriculture Ministry between 1985 and 1995. Its current semi-official status was granted by a law passed in 2005.

Last year, olive oil producers in western Turkey were allowed to take part in the process, and Aegean Olive Oil Exporters Unions Chairman Davut Er said the decision to bring Syrian oil to Turkey had “originally been a political decision, not an economic one,” but the product had “become a very important part of the sector.” This commercial activity was not officially considered importing goods from a foreign country, and the olive oil was branded as a Turkish product as it was being sold.

Turkey’s exports of domestic olive oil fell from $ 120 million in January and February 2018 to $ 28 million in the same period in 2019, due to a dearth of olive harvest last year. The oil coming from Syria helped Turkish exporters keep up some of their revenue, Er said.

“In the past, the oil would be smuggled from Afrin,” Er explained. “And now the sales are done at the hands of the state.”

The government maintains that the olive oil was brought to Turkey so Syrian Kurdish groups that Turkey considers to be terrorist organisations don’t benefit from it. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has said that Syrian oil was being re-exported via Turkey, and that the revenue went back to the owners of the olive groves. “There is no theft or anything here,” he said.

In 2018, Turkey opened a new border gate in Hatay to transport Afrin’s olive oil directly to the country.

Turkey has been accused of committing war crimes and human rights violations, and turning a blind eye to the crimes and violations committed by the Syrian groups it supports that are in control in Afrin.

A United Nations inquiry last year detailed extensive violations, which included the “pillaging” of the olive harvest by armed groups. Other crimes documented by the U.N. include hostage-taking, cruel treatment and torture, rape, extortion, and murder.