Syria has launched a massive crackdown on goods smuggled in from neighboring Turkey, a move reminiscent of the 1980s when it was forbidden to import anything made outside the country, and one which merchants fear could scare off investors.
The vicious campaign by the Customs Department kicked off last month in the wealthiest neighborhoods of the capital Damascus, where smuggled international brands can still be found. Everything from the Toblerone Swiss chocolate bars to the Italian fashion label Valentino fell under the sweep.
Such brands are still in demand, whether by the city’s old money or by war profiteers who have suddenly found themselves with plentiful cash at their disposal.
Supported by policemen with guns, customs officials have been forcing their way into supermarkets and fashion houses alike, demanding to see how foreign goods were brought into the country.
Those who cannot provide up-to-date and proper records have been fined, their merchandise confiscated. In recent days, many outlets have kept their shutters closed, fearing a second phase of the crackdown.
According to a press release published on the website of the official news agency SANA, the campaign aims at “promoting Syrian industry, combating smuggled goods and maintaining Syria’s reserve of foreign currency.”
The unspoken reason is to tackle the increasing number of Turkish goods smuggled into the country through northern cities and towns now in the hands of Turkish troops and their proxies.
‘Broke in like wolves’
The campaign has been felt most strongly in Damascus, though other provincial capitals like Hama, Latakia and Aleppo have also seen raids – albeit on a much smaller scale.
Shopkeepers are furious, saying this scares off investors, cripples commercial activity and kills competitiveness in the Syrian industrialist community.
“They broke into my shop like wolves,” said Elian, who owns an outlet for buying, exchanging and selling expensive watches in the Syrian capital.
“I have no documents for my watches. Many of my items are collectibles, swapped with my customers. They include antique Rolexes – now all confiscated,” he told Asia Times, preferring not to use his full name to avoid scrutiny by customs officials.
“Before leaving, they said to me that my goods were threatening the national economy,” he added. “A nice watch threatens the national economy, and all the corruption does not?”
Confiscated goods from upscale Damascus districts like al-Malki, Abu Rummaneh, Shaalan, Rawdah and Mezzeh have amounted to approximately 150 million Syrain pounds (US$300,000), according to the Customs Department.
“Some people were seriously thinking about coming back to Syria,” said Akram Uthman, a supermarket owner in the Shaalan neighborhood, not far from the Four Seasons Hotel.
“They were going to put money in different sectors. After what just happened, authorities seem to be telling them: ‘Don’t come back. You are unwelcome here!’”
Ramez al-Ali, an economist with the ruling Baath Party, scolded this attitude, saying: “Self-sufficiency is a must. It is a crime to import goods that one can find in Syria, made by Syrian manufacturers” the economist told Asia Times.
Exceptions would be mobile phones, LCD screens and other electronics, which are not made in Syria.
He asked: “Why in the world would you buy shoes that are made-in-Turkey if you can get the exact same quality right here in Syria? Is it just to support Erdogan and to harm your own economy?”
Crackdown or policy?
Goods from abroad are, as a rule, bought in foreign currency, depleting the country’s already diminishing reserve of dollars. The more Syrian businessmen spend US dollars on foreign goods, the higher the demand for foreign currency becomes, further damaging the already ruined Syrian currency.
In 2011, before the civil war broke out, the exchange rate was 50 SP to the dollar. It now stands at 500 SP to US$1.
“Mistakes do happen,” an official at the Customs Department told Asia Times on condition of anonymity. But the campaign will continue “until the very last item of smuggled goods is found and confiscated.” Only this will stop the free-fall of the Syrian pound and boost Syrian-made products, he added.
But has the campaign inspired Syrian industrialists to upgrade their products, or put them at ease now that they no longer have to compete with regional or international challengers?
“For now, everybody is waiting to see if this policy will last or if it is ad hoc and temporal,” the economist Ali said of the business community.
“Once they realize that it is here to stay – so long as the international embargo lasts – then businessmen will logically have to improve their services. They won’t be competing with international brands anymore, but with local Syrian brands.”
The difference, he emphasized, is that it will be a 100% Syrian market, with Syrian goods, Syrian competitors and Syrian purchasing power.