Observations on Syria at Cilvegözü border gate

I was at the Cilvegözü border gate in Reyhanlı, Hatay, which was closed »»

I was at the Cilvegözü border gate in Reyhanlı, Hatay, which was closed on July 27. The Syrian opposition forces seized control of the Bab al-Hawa border gate, four-and-a-half kilometers away from Cilvegözü, and the gates along the Turkish-Syrian border -- with the exception of the Şanlıurfa-Akçakale and Hatay-Yayladağı gates -- on July 19.

Syrian customs officials have fled, computers and documents have been destroyed. The gates themselves have been demolished. In the face of these developments, the minister of customs and trade announced that the gates along the Turkish-Syrian border, with the exception of the Akçakale and Yayladağı gates, would be closed.

Syria used to be an important route for Turkey’s land transportation to the Middle East, and Cilvegözü was the most important gate. Before the breakout of the riots in Syria in March 2011, 500 trucks passed through the Cilvegözü gate every day. This declined to 120-200 per day after March 2011, but did not stop. Even on July 19, when the Bab al-Hawa border gate was destroyed, 24 trucks crossed the border. On July 20, 47 trucks passed through the gate, followed by 28 on July 21. On July 26, just one day before the closure of the gate, 41 trucks passed through it. Following the burning and looting of Turkish trucks at the Cilvegözü gate, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) announced that with the exception of the vehicles hit at Bab al-Hawa, the perpetrators of the pillage of the Turkish trucks were villagers, and that the guilty parties have been punished. The FSA extended help and support to find the Turkish trucks that were lost and to return them to the Cilvegözü border gate.

The Cilvegözü and Bab al-Hawa border gates were crucial to the economy in Hatay. For the local people in the province, export and transportation to Middle Eastern countries and border trade were common ways to make a living. The town of Reyhanlı alone used to receive millions of Turkish lira in border trade and smuggling. Now this flow of money has been interrupted, and it is not clear when trade will resume. In the summer of 2011, Syrian gas was sold even from grocery stores also stocking bread and yoghurt from Syria. Now, with the exception of livestock, tea and cigarettes from Iraqi Kurdistan, smuggling activities have ceased.

Following the closure of the border gates, ro-ro vessels -- ships able to carry wheeled cargo -- began traveling from Mersin, the second largest port in Turkey, to Egypt, Lebanon (Tripoli) and Syria (Tartus). This has increased transportation costs, with the price of transporting a container from Hatay to Jordan increasing from $1,700 in March 2011 to $8,500. For this reason, the situation is affecting the local economies of Adana, Aksaray, Gaziantep, Hatay, Isparta, Kahramanmaraş, Karaman, Kayseri, Konya, Mardin, Mersin, Niğde, Şanlıurfa and Uşak, all of which have relied heavily on exporting to countries in the Middle East in the past.

Hatay is renowned for its extensive transportation activities, with large bus and truck fleets. Now, local transporters are intensifying their activities in the north of the country, but as of Aug. 1, Uzbekistan will no longer issue transit permits for this route. The workings of the new system to replace the transit permits are unclear. Turkish trucks receive transit permits in the Russian Federation, based on some conditions, but the permit is issued only if the shipment is guaranteed to be transported by a Russian vehicle.

The Akçakale and Yayladağı gates along the Turkish-Syrian border, under the control of the FSA, are open. Akçakale is a less significant border gate, not used by trucks. Yayladağı, however, has gained in importance due to recent events, and 60 trucks passed through it on July 26.

The Cilvegözü border gate is a hub of live broadcasting equipment. Hatay has not hosted such an array of foreign politicians, diplomats, military servicemen, journalists, intelligence agents and rioters since the Crusades. Most foreigners in Hatay try to conceal their identities. The teams of Chinese TV stations present themselves as Japanese, and American journalists as Irish. But regardless of their origins, the foreigners in the city do not leave without tasting its legendary künefe dessert.