As Syrian war shuts down trade routes, Turkish business improvises

By Kevin Sullivan, Saturday, May 25, 2013

ISKENDERUN, Turkey — The Nissos Rodos, a 630-foot ferry, used to cruise the Greek islands, moving tourists from one sunny paradise to the next. Business dried up when the Greek economic crisis hit three years ago. But then came the war in Syria, creating new opportunity.

So now the Nissos Rodos is based here in southern Turkey, where it carries Turkish 18-wheelers filled with vegetables or textiles to lucrative Middle Eastern markets, allowing truckers to sail around war-ravaged Syria instead of driving through it.

The presence of the Nissos Rodos in this industrial port on the Mediterranean illustrates an age-old truth: In times of war, commerce improvises.

“You must be flexible,” said captain Michael Brouzos, standing on the stained carpet of his once-elegant ship, which has become a sort of floating truck stop. “This ship is following the work, and we follow the ship. Everybody has to find a way to make their business.”

With Syria sitting like a huge boulder in the road blocking the usual flow of commerce, the Turkish truckers have found a way. Instead of the easy drive they used to take across Syria, then through Jordan and into Saudi Arabia, the Nissos Rodos carries them to Egypt, where they drive the length of the Suez Canal to another port, then board a second ferry to cross the Red Sea and finally arrive at the major Saudi port of Jiddah.

The war in Syria has slammed the regional economy. Turkish officials said once-thriving trade between Turkey and Syria, its southern neighbor, has dropped by two-thirds or more, abruptly halting billions of dollars in cross-border business and tourism. Those effects have been compounded by the prolonged financial crisis in Greece, on Turkey’s western border, which has sent unemployment soaring and disrupted trade with Turkey.

But amid war and economic disaster, businesses are reinventing themselves.

“One door closes, one door opens,” said Cem Aysel, general manager of LimakPort, which is renovating Iskenderun’s neglected port into a major container-ship hub. He said the new Nissos Rodos ferry business is an unexpected windfall that has earned about $3 million for the port since it started last summer.

The port isn’t alone. While many of the 400,000 or more Syrian refugees in Turkey have lost everything and can’t imagine a brighter future, others are improvising and finding business opportunities amid the upheaval.

One Syrian refugee has bought an old restaurant in the border town of Reyhanli and turned it into a coffee shop frequented by laptop-toting refugees. The place also doubles as a gallery of paintings and political cartoons skewering Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. All along the border, towns are filled with restaurants and other businesses catering to Syrians, with new signs and menus not in Turkish, but Arabic.

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Categories: Asia, Syria, Turkey

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