Syrian war hits Turkey’s Middle East freight trade

While Turkey has been stricken by severe economic problems for the past year, the southern province of Hatay, bordering Syria to its south and east, has been hit doubly hard, contending both with the crisis and the impact of the seven-year conflict across the border.

The gateway for Turkey’s land trade routes to the Middle East, Hatay’s logistics sector is now struggling to stay afloat. With almost 8,000 vehicles, Hatay used to have the second largest fleet of commercial lorries after Istanbul, but now most of the province’s 300 transport firms are struggling to stay in business. The sector, which employs some 50,000 people, including drivers, administrative staff, mechanics and tyre dealers, is fighting for its life in Hatay.

Ninety percent of workers in the border town of Reyhanlı made a living driving trucks. But since the start of the Syria conflict, the town has been deprived of its main source of income, while the population has doubled with the influx of Syrians fleeing the war. A great number of locals have been forced to migrate to cities around Turkey.

“There were once over 3,000 lorries in Reyhanlı,” said Hamit Şanverdi, a local and board member of the International Freight Forwarders’ Association.

“Most of these carried goods through Syria to Arab countries including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, and as far as Yemen. The freight trade ended with the beginning of the war in Syria,” he said.

Before the war began in 2011, the province’s location and the ability of its people to speak Arabic had made Hatay firms the first choice for businesses across Turkey looking to export a diverse range of durable goods to the Middle East.

“The Cilvegözü border crossing was our gateway to the Gulf countries. We were able to reach many Arab countries through Syria,” Şanverdi said.

“Young people who couldn’t study were able to get a job driving. Now, thousands of people have been made unemployed. A great many freight firms have either gone bankrupt or been forced to cut their operations,” he said.

While these firms once carried goods from producers around Turkey all the way to their final destinations, Şanverdi explained that now the last stop for the Turkish firms is Cilvegözü, a border gate at the southeast of the province opposite the Bab al-Hawa gate in Syria. The freight now must change hands to Syrian carriers to continue its journey.

“Our trucks leave their consignments at the loading area, and then people from Syria pick them and carry them from there,” said Kemal Gül, another board member at the association.

“Our business works as long as things keep flowing. If the flow stops, so do our profits. Carrying goods from Antep (in southeast Turkey) to the Syrian border doesn’t turn a profit. What does is carrying them to Saudi Arabia or Qatar. At the moment we’re just trying to pay our expenses,” said Gül.

Facing a severe loss of income, freight company owners have been forced to manage their operations and drive trucks, said Şanverdi.

With vehicles costing their owners around 25,000 lira ($4,763) a year even if they do not work, as well as insurance and other expenses, it is not difficult to understand the pressures on them.

The only alternative to reach the Arab destinations is by carrying the goods on roll-on roll-off freight ships through the Suez Canal, a route that multiplies costs. While hundreds of trucks used to cross the border daily, the two ships a day leaving Turkey’s southern port of Iskenderun have a capacity to carry just 20 lorries – a clear indicator of the squeeze felt by the sector since the start of the war.

But the war, said Gül, is not the only factor impacting the trade.

“High interest rates and the lira’s fluctuations against the dollar, high diesel prices, and the rising costs of tyres, insurance and maintenance thanks to the weak lira have all brought operation expenses higher,” Gül said.

Yasin Yüksek, who has driven lorries from Hatay for 15 years, said freight firms have also suffered with the decline of Turkish agriculture, which has seen the province go from being a busy hub exporting Turkish fruit and vegetables to becoming an importer, like the rest of the country.

Some drivers, like İbrahim Yeral, who has been travelling the roads outside Turkey for 27 years, have managed to find work carrying goods to Europe.

But, Yeral said, he has been one of the few lucky ones, and has seen his colleagues in the sector, from drivers to company owners, left without work. And, he said, the trade with Europe has problems of its own.

“We go through the crossing at Kapıkule. It’s too crowded, so there are problems with that,” he said. “And we go through Bulgaria. It’s way too expensive to cross.”