Cablegate: Turkey: Spike in Syrian Visitors to Southern Turkey Four

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E.O. 12958: N/A

1. (SBU) SUMMARY: The reciprocal abolishment of the visa
regime between Turkey and Syria on September 18, 2009, has
resulted in a spike in Syrian visitors to Mersin, Hatay and
Gaziantep. According to contacts, the travel, tourism and
retail sectors have seen vigorous business that only promises to
increase. While Turkey and Syria enjoy a long history of
commercial and familial ties, large areas of the border remain
heavily mined, posing a challenge to advancing economic and
trade expansion. From a security perspective, entry procedures
such as swiping machine-readable passports and performing name
checks remain unchanged. Security personnel are concerned that
incidents of smuggling goods, a longstanding problem, will rise.
Turkey has six primary commercial and passenger-vehicle border
gates, and one railway gate reopened on December 22, 2009, for
the new Gaziantep-Aleppo train service. Discussions to reopen a
seventh border gate in Sirnak, closed since 1972, are underway.


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2. (SBU) Turkey's longest border is with Syria, and six
border provinces - Hatay, Kilis, Gaziantep, Sanliurfa, Mardin
and Sirnak - have a long history of deep commercial and familial
ties with Syria. Communities of ethnically Arab Turks in the
south and southeast maintain those ties on a daily basis. The
Turkish-Arab Countries Business Association has its headquarters
in Mersin, where for several years a ferryboat service linked
the city to Syria's port of Latakia. Currently, negotiations
are underway to re-launch the ferry service. For many decades
before the September 2009 reciprocal abolition of visas, Turkey
and Syria had an agreement allowing families to cross back and
forth visa-free during two important religious holidays - Kurban
Bayram (Sacrifice Holiday, or Eid al-Adha) and Seker Bayram
(Sugar Holiday, or Eid al-Fitr). These business and family ties
have endured despite bilateral tensions dating back to the
foundation of the Hatay Republic in 1938, the Hatay Republic's
decision to become a Turkish province in 1939, through the Cold
War, the terrorism peak in the 1990s when Syria harbored PKK
leader Abdullah Ocalan, and the ongoing water disputes. The
surviving mark of bad relations is heavily mined areas along the
border, which business contacts complain hinders the expansion
of commerce and trade, particularly in the areas of agribusiness
and transportation infrastructure.


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3. (SBU) Six main border gates are currently in operation,
with negotiations underway to open a seventh. At the apex of
good relations, Turkey and Syria once had 13 border gates.
Hatay province has two gates: Cilvegozu, which is the busier
gate, and Yayladag. In 2008, the Union of Chambers and
Commodity Exchanges of Turkey (TOBB) renovated the Turkish side
of Yayladagi, but, according to contacts, bottlenecks of
commercial and passenger vehicles continue because the Syrians
still have not modernized their side. When they do so, business
owners estimate the volume of traffic at Cilvegozu could be
reduced by one third. According to the Hatay Chamber of
Commerce (HCOC), Syria still requires Turkish commercial trucks
to enter in one convoy daily at 1400 hours. Members of the HCOC
complained this policy forces drivers who miss the window to
wait 24 hours to join the next convoy, significantly hampering

4. (SBU) Kilis, once part of Gaziantep and carved out in 1996
as an independent province, has two border gates with Syria:
Oncupinar and Cobanbey. The Gaziantep Chamber of Industry said
Oncupinar gate, also on TOBB's to-be-renovated list, is used
primarily by passenger vehicles and tourism buses and has a
volume of daily border traffic of about 600-700 vehicles, a
spike from pre-visa abolishment numbers of around 50 vehicles.
After 28 years of laying fallow, Cobanbey gate is a railway-only

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crossing that opened on December 22, 2009, after an extensive
demining program. Direct rail service from Gaziantep to Aleppo
has begun with twice weekly trips for 277-passenger-capacity
cars. The service will continue for six months, after which an
economic assessment will consider continuation.

5. (SBU) According to Akcalale Customs Director Ali Ozdemir,
the Akcalale border gate in Sanliurfa province processes about
1,500 outbound and inbound passengers daily. He estimated a 200
percent increase in passenger traffic since the lifting of the
visa requirement. Ozdemir said the Akcakale gate, fully opened
to commercial cargo transit in February 2008, does brisk
business, with approximately 500 trucks daily carrying cement
and other goods from Turkey to Syria and returning empty.
Ozdemir stated talks about expanding and modernizing the gate
had been ongoing for the past three years, but no improvements
had been made at the site. A smaller gate in Sanliurfa, the
Ceylanpinar border crossing, is for passenger vehicles only.

6. (SBU) In Mardin, Nusaybin border gate Customs Director
Sukru Adas said the gate was opened in 1953 as a "pasavan kapi,"
specifically to allow Turkish and Syrian citizens to pay mutual
visits to their relatives. He estimated the gate was processing
about 500 passengers daily in both directions, but could not
provide a figure for commercial trucks. Adas said plans for
modernizing the gate were at the High Planning Committee in
Ankara, but he did not know when construction would start.
Mardin province has a second border gate at Senyurt.

7. (SBU) Cizre Chamber of Commerce President Adana Elci said
Sirnak province's border gate 17 kilometers south of Cizre was
operational from 1940-1972, when it was shut down by Turkey for
security reasons related to the Cold War. The deputy governor
of Sirnak province confirmed negotiations were underway to
reopen the gate, giving Sirnak the distinction of having border
crossings with both Syria and Iraq (at Habur).



8. (SBU) Hatay Deputy Director of Security Ali Keskin said
lifting the visa requirement had no impact on standard security
measures such as passport control and name checks, and assured
Consulate security staff that computerized security systems were
operational at border gates. The main effect of the visa
abolishment is relief from the reciprocally levied 55 Euro fee.
Hatay province's Antakya Chamber of Commerce President Hikmet
Cincin said Turkish citizens crossing visa-free into Syria may
stay for up to 30 days. Turkish citizens who wish to stay
longer must apply for a visa (without charge) at the Syrian
Consulate in Gaziantep or the Syrian Embassy in Ankara.
Additionally, Syria continues to levy a fee of USD 10 per
gas-fueled passenger vehicle and up to USD 400 per commercial
truck. Turkey levies an exit fee of USD 10 for all citizens
departing the country.


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9. (SBU) Of all the border provinces, Gaziantep has the most
vigorous commercial ties with Syria. With its sister chamber in
Aleppo, the Gaziantep Chamber of Commerce is the only chamber in
Turkey with a Syria Trade and Liaison Office employing a
full-time staff member. Opened in 2008, the office's aim is to
expand bilateral trade and business by providing Turkish
companies with the full gamut of free consulting services,
including organizing meetings and trade delegations, publishing
information, and offering business matchmaking services for
investors. Office Coordinator Emin Berk said he receives calls
from all over Turkey about how to do business with Syria. He

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said although businessmen have concerns about Syria's closed
economy, the lack of an internationally accepted banking system,
the lack of skilled labor, and the authoritarian government,
they still appear ready to invest. Chamber Secretary General
Halil Gocer said the removal of visas has contributed greatly to
Syrian tourism in Gaziantep. On another level, Gaziantep
Chamber of Industry Secretary General Kursat Goncu said lifting
the visa had helped "increase confidence between the two
countries and heightened awareness of commercial opportunities."
Goncu believed long-term effects might be negative, however, as
Syria has a highly developed black market, with most economic
activities controlled by a small political elite that is
reluctant to change. That black market activity may spread even
further into Turkey, Goncu suggested. In business, however,
Goncu said, one cannot ignore that Aleppo alone has a
4.5-million person market.

10. (SBU) Antakya CoC President Cincin said Antakya's hotel
bookings had increased by 50 percent since September 2009, and
that local tourism and travel agencies were busy developing
Hatay-focused packages for Syrian visitors. From Hatay, Syrian
visitors are able to reach quickly other parts of Turkey as well
as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Cincin said
Turkish Airlines had increased the number of Hatay-Istanbul
flights from two to three weekly, and private airlinePegasus had
commenced direct Hatay-TRNC flights. The minister of
transportation announced recently that Hatay Airport was among
the two most profitable airports in Turkey in 2009. Cincin
noted six major Syrian cities lie at a distance of 80-120
kilometers from Hatay, representing a six-million person market
and attractive investment area for Turkish businesses. The
Antakya Chamber will soon establish a sister relationship with
the chamber of commerce in Syria's Idlip, which is also where
Turkish company Intas plans to build a pipe factory.

11. (SBU) Hatay's Mustafa Kemal University (MKU) Rector
Serefettin Canda told PolOff the university's medical clinic
had received an influx of Syrian patients in the last few
months. He said he is working on expanding the healthcare
market with the acquisition of computerized surgical equipment,
currently possessed only by hospitals in Istanbul and Ankara, so
that his medical department could become an "attraction center
for the Middle Eastern countries." Canda is working on amending
regulations governing university admissions to allow at least
ten Syrian students to study medicine at MKU beginning in 2011.

12. (SBU) Mersin Chamber of Commerce President Serafettin Asut
said droves of Syrian tourists were coming to Mersin to enjoy
the beaches and the city's upscale shopping area, Forum. Asut
said Forum's manager told him it was easy to tell when Syrian
tourists were in town as Mersin turned into a cash economy,
whereas most Turks pay for purchases with debit cards. Currency
exchange bureaus turning dollars into Turkish lira are more
active now, he said. Asut said he recognized the potential of
the Syrian market, but acknowledged Hatay and Gaziantep had the
Aleppo area in hand. Instead, Asut is setting his Chamber's
sights on Damascus where, from February 22-28, he will host a
"Mersin Days" exposition to promote the city along with a group
of more than 100 businessmen and representatives from Mersin
University, the Free Zone, and the port. Asut said he would
discuss reviving the hydrofoil service between Latakia and
Mersin while in Damascus. Hilton Hotel's director of business
development in Mersin said she believed Syrian tourist bookings
were up at least 25 percent year on year, and she had noticed a
significant spike in Syrian visitors since September 2009.

13. (SBU) Unlike Hatay, Gaziantep and Mersin, Kilis province,
carved out of Gaziantep in 1996, has not benefited from the
abolishment of the visa requirement, according to Kilis Chamber
of Commerce Secretary General Murat Sakar. Kilis produces
agricultural commodities that are already available in Syria at
much lower prices, and because Kilis lacks tourism
infrastructure such as restaurants and large retail shopping
areas, Syrian visitors are transiting the province without

14. (SBU) President of the Turkish-Arab Countries Business
Association Dogan Narin said Turkey's recent strategic
agreements with Syria were positive for the region and predicted

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things would only get better. Turkey's exports to Arab
countries in 2008 totaled USD 25 billion, and of that, USD 1.115
billion went to Syria. Syria's exports to Turkey in 2008 were
USD 639 million. Turkish and Syrian leaders have publicized a
target of USD 5 billion in trade volume in five years.



15. (SBU) COMMENT: Contacts are sanguine about the future of
the expanding Turkish-Syrian relationship and its implication
for commercial ties for south and southeast Turkey. Several
contacts lamented the inertia on the Syrian side in not matching
Turkey's border gate renovation efforts, rendering cross-border
commerce sluggish and inefficient. All contacts dismissed
security-related concerns that the abolishment of the visa
regime would lead to porous borders without safeguards. One
contact in particular assured us that as Turkey had been poised
to invade Syria only eleven years ago, and despite the publicly
displayed warmth between PM Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar
al-Assad, Turkey would not lose sight of the fact the PKK
continues to seek harbor in Syria. END COMMENT.

© Scoop Media

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