Minister sighs relief on dead-end Syria project

Minister sighs relief on dead-end Syria project

ISTANBUL- Hürriyet Daily News
Minister sighs relief on dead-end Syria project

A crowd protesting against Syrian leader al-Assad marches in Amude on Oct 7. A Turkish minister says his country is lucky that it did not open a joint customs gate with Syria. REUTERS photo

It has been ‘fortunate’ that an ambitious project to establish a joint customs gate between Turkey and Syria fell through, the Turkish Minister of Customs and Trade says, reflecting on the ongoing turmoil in Turkey’s southern neighbor

It’s been fortunate that a rare “joint customs gate” project by Syria did not go through, a top Turkish official has said, voicing his desire to see stability in Turkey’s southern neighbor soon.

Turkey and Syria held the groundbreaking ceremony for the customs gate on Feb. 26 this year in the southeastern town of Nusaybin. The ceremony was attended by Mohammed al Hussein, Syria’s finance minister at the time, and Hayati Yazıcı, the then Turkish state minister.

Months later, as Syria descends into chaos with the Turkish government eager to see the Bashar al-Assad regime toppled, Yazıcı reflected on the incident. Speaking to a group of journalists in Istanbul on Nov. 16, Yazıcı, the minister for the new Customs and Trade Ministry, said the most promising among Turkey’s joint customs gate plans was with Syria. Similar projects are in the pipeline with Georgia and Iraq.

“The talks got stuck on the issue of international arbitration,” Yazıcı said. “Turkey offered Switzerland as the arbitration court location, but the Syrian side refused this. At one point, I was joking that I personally should act as the arbitrator and solve problems. Then, the Syrian minister was unseated and we were left without a counter-party in the talks.”

“It was fortunate for us that this project was not realized,” the minister said, referring to the ongoing instability in Syria. “I hope the situation there stabilizes soon.”

The Istanbul press conference for the new ministry, a rare occurrence for journalists, aimed to display Yazıcı’s eagerness to establish a transparent institution, as well as unveil the ministry’s projects, which revolve around the theme of 2023, the centennial of the Turkish Republic. Yazıcı’s authority now encompasses the areas of customs, foreign and domestic trade, market competition and protection of the consumer – all crucially important if Turkey is to reach a foreign trade volume target of $1 trillion only 12 years from now.

Fresh recruits for the ministry

Indeed, the ministry has been allocated the resources it was craving for years, as its total staff size has surpassed the 10,000 mark, and is expected to reach 11,350 by the end of the year. Five thousand new jobs will be created on the customs front, while 1,000 new inspectors will be instated for the protection of consumers from harmful and illicit goods. To mark the new period, it has also chosen a new logo to represent “confidence, health and economy.”

Yazıcı acknowledged the growing problem of cigarette smuggling. “The annual tax revenue from cigarettes is around 14-15 billion Turkish Liras – a huge amount,” he said. “Smuggling is partly due to high prices. We have started to use sniffing dogs that are trained for find tea and cigarettes. But we need more deterrent regulations.”

According to the Cigarette and Health National Committee, Turkey ranks 10th among countries in terms of cigarette smuggling. At a press conference in Istanbul yesterday, committee members said 11.6 percent of the global cigarette market is illegal – a trade that incurs a combined tax loss of $40.5 billion for governments.

Yazıcı and his team also aim to facilitate faster, easier trade by cutting red tape at the border gates and wage war on unregistered trade of fruits and vegetables.

“The new Wholesale Market Hall Act will come into effect as of Oct. 1,” Minister Yazıcı said. “We aim to make sure this huge area of activity, which saw 42.6 million tons of fruit and vegetables produced only last year, is properly registered.”

Only 5 percent of this amount is exported, while the rest is retained for domestic use. However, due to a lack of regulations that has dominated the sector for decades, 25 percent of this domestic amount is destroyed, while only 30 percent of the rest is registered. “We will change this picture,” the minister said, while also detailing plans to establish licensed warehousing and commodity trading, which will shield producers from price swings while enhancing product accountability for consumers.

At the press conference, Yazıcı also voiced support for customs brokers to organize as a chamber. “Of course, we have to discuss this in the Cabinet,” he said. “But I think they have to have a chamber, because they constitute a career profession – not everyone can be one. The only concern is that there are around 2,500 customs brokers in Turkey. Will they be able to finance a chamber? If they can, I support them.”