A’ZAZ, Syria — The Turkish market winds its way for two kilometers across A’zaz — a concentration of energy and commerce at odds with this otherwise forgettable Syrian border town.
People come here seeking everything from washing machines to clothing bearing the coveted “Made in Turkey” label. The last time the town garnered so much attention was the Battle of A’zaz — fought almost 900 years ago between the Crusaders and the Seljuk Turks.
“Turkish goods are really popular here,” said Basem H’lla, a 27-year-old shopkeeper at one of the dozens of clothing shops that line the market. “They aren’t as expensive as European goods, but they are better than the Chinese products.”
Under the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey has fostered economic ties with its neighbors — a strategy aimed at opening up new markets, securing a few previously shaky political relationships and enhancing its influence across the region. That much of its energy has been directed eastward — coupled with its deteriorating ties with Israel and a vote against new U.N. sanctions on Iran — has led some to question whether Turkey has “turned its back on the West.”
Turkey sees it differently.
“We are a part of the West. If the West sees us as outside and an object that can be lost or won, their logic is wrong,” said Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in a recent interview with Newsweek. “If Western values are soft power, economic interdependency, human rights, then we defend them.”
Turkey has long seen as a bridge between the East and West, and its foreign policy reflects both its unique geographic position and its fresh ambition to balance the interests of Western powers with those of its Eastern neighbors.
The approach has had mixed reviews — while the Arab world has welcomed the new approach, some in the West view the changes with skepticism. Either way, Turkey doesn’t seem to be waiting for anyone’s permission to carve out its own future.
Following a free trade agreement between Turkey and Syria, implemented in 2007, trade between the two neighbors leaped from $795 million in 2006 to more than $1.5 billion in 2009. Now officials are looking to double that figure.
“The alliance between Turkey and Syria has been pivotal to changing the way Turkey is perceived in the region and opening up new markets to them,” said Basel Nejem, an Arabic teacher from Damascus whose brother goes on regular trips to hawk goods in the Turkish city of Gaziantep.
Earlier this year the Turkish military also staged a joint drill with Syrian soldiers on their shared border.
Relations between Turkey and Syria have not always been so warm. The 1980s and 1990s were often tense as Syria sheltered Turkish Kurd guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan and Turkey developed military ties with Israel. Turkey even went so far as to mass troops in 1998. But that same year, Syria gave in and expelled Ocalan, and as Turkey’s relationship with Israel has soured, its friendship with Syria has only grown stronger.
“Ten years ago it was completely different, we saw Turkey as the enemy, a brutal force out to get us,” said Nejem. “But the enemy of my enemy is my friend. People are starting to see Turkey as an Islamic country that is helping us.”
His Islamic background, tough-love charisma and penchant for telling off Israel has made Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan an increasingly popular figure on Arab streets. In market stalls around Damascus, magnets and buttons featuring the prime minister’s mug are being sold alongside images of Hezbollah’s Sheikh Nasrallah and El Che.
Arab tourism to Turkey is also on the rise. About 105,000 visitors from a cluster of Arab countries, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, came to Turkey in May this year, an increase of about 33 percent from the same month last year.
“We love to come here now,” said Abu Mustafa, a Palestinian businessman on vacation in Istanbul. “Turkey hasn’t had a leader like Erdogan since Sultan Abdulhamid [II].”
The last absolute monarch of the Ottoman Empire, Abdulhamid II was long despised in Syria, under Ottoman control for more than 400 years. Popular Syrian series portrayed the sultan as an autocratic despot out to destroy their people.
But his pre-World War II refusal to sell land in Palestine to Zionists in exchange for the paying off of the Empire’s debt and a brand new navy has changed his legacy from that of despot to hero, and a new series this year, “Suqut al-Khilafa” (Fall of the Caliphate), paints a rosy picture of the sultan.
The lifting of visa restrictions last fall brought the already burgeoning relationship to new heights. A well-paved road runs the five kilometers from A’zaz to the border, where the Turkish and Syrian flags hang side by side.
With no visas, the exchange of goods and labor has become increasingly free — from Turkish capital inflows to projects in northern Syria to rising numbers of Syrian workers in Turkey’s southeast. But as legal trade becomes easier, so does smuggling.
“Smuggling is a way of life in Syria,” said Andrew Tabler, the next generation fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and co-founder and former editor of Syria Today, who explained that goods ranging from mechanical parts to fuel have been making their way illegally across the border.
Syria’s trade with Turkey is also deeply one-sided. In 2009, Turkey’s exports amounted to $1.4 billion, while Syria only exported $328 million in exchange. Many here are beginning to ask whether the free trade agreement is just another form of neo-colonialism in which Syria’s industry is being overwhelmed by bigger, and more efficient, Turkish companies.
“You need to introduce competition to reform the markets, but opening up to Turkish competition has exposed the Syrian market to a tremendous amount of hurt,” said Tabler. “I wouldn’t call it tough love, but maybe good pain? Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and Syria is not very good at that.”