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New allegations emerge about Turkey’s seizure of Afrin olives

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Cevheri Güven

Several reports have claimed that the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), along with some businesspeople close to the Turkish government, have been engaged in the plundering of olives worth €109 million in the Turkish-occupied northwestern Syrian province of Afrin, one of the major olive production hubs of the region. According to the allegations, the FSA is seizing olives in Afrin and exporting them to other countries by way of Turkey. The revenue generated is spent on the FSA’s expenses such as fighters’ pay, weapons and ammunition. When asked about the allegations, Turkey’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry declined to comment, citing commercial confidentiality.

Afrin’s olives have a considerable reputation in the region and around the world. With about 18 million trees, Syria is a major producer, drawing the attention of several countries, such as Italy, that aim to have a role in the market. Turkey’s military invasion of the region, however, has brought allegations that go beyond that. In January 2018, Turkey’s armed forces and their allied militant factions conducted a cross-border military excursion into Afrin called “Operation Olive Branch,” in an effort to force Kurdish militia out of the region. While the operation’s name was supposedly a reference to peace according to politicians’ talking points, then-Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım had made an interesting remark at the time, saying, “Olives are going to the people and their branches to the terrorists.”

Olives coming to Turkey for three years

It has been three years since the operation, and the Turkish government claims that over the course of these three years it has processed the olives in facilities in Turkey, exported the products to other countries and distributed the revenue to farmers in Afrin. The Turkish opposition, however, believes that this is not true. Contrary to the declarations made by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the opposition has alleged that the FSA was confiscating Afrin farmers’ olives and bringing them to Turkey. The revenue generated by the processing and export of the olives went to covering the FSA’s expenses.

The opposition says most of the farmers in Afrin fled due to the conflict and are now refugees in other countries.

During 2020 budget negotiations in parliament deputies from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) brought up the allegations of bringing olives from Afrin to Turkey and exporting them, to which the AKP responded with a partial acknowledgement.

In the course of talks on the 2020 Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry budget, Minister Bekir Pakdemirli said: “We don’t want the revenue to fall into the hands of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK]. We want it to go to us.” Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy and former ambassador Ünal Çeviköz also brought up the alleged seizure of olives, to which Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu responded: “The olives in Syria are being reexported by us. The revenue is distributed to the property owners. There is no such thing as robbery or anything of the sort here. This is just propaganda.”

Afrin olives commercial secret

Mehmet Güzelmansur, another CHP deputy, submitted a written parliamentary question in February 2020 enquiring about the amount of olive oil that is introduced into the domestic market, how the process is supervised and the number of companies sanctioned for having sold olive oil in the domestic market despite the fact that olives were brought from Afrin for export purposes. Minister Pakdemirli declined to respond, citing commercial confidentiality.

109 million euros

In November 2020 HDP deputy Rıdvan Turan once again brought the issue up in parliament and alleged that Turkey and Turkish-backed militant groups seized millions of olive trees in Afrin and from them the FSA generated revenue of €109 million in 2018 alone.

Allegations in European agenda

The controversy is also closely being followed in other countries. In Switzerland, conservative deputy Bernhard Guhl raised in the National Council of Switzerland Turkey’s alleged export of Afrin olives to European Union countries.

Guhl accused Turkey of plundering the region’s olive groves and of processing and exporting the products under the label “Made in Turkey” to the European market, in order to support its favored militants in the Syrian civil war. Guhl claimed that the products were sold to Spain, calling for an investigation.

Spanish online newspaper Público also published a report that said Turkey was blending olive oil produced from Afrin olives with domestic olive oil, labeling the product as made in Turkey and selling it by way of intermediary companies.

Secret protocol

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that in September 2018 militant groups had seized 75 percent of the olive groves in Afrin, renting some of them out to others. After that, the FSA released a written order requiring the transfer of the groves to local councils, according to the SOHR.

A while later, a protocol signed by FSA members and local council representatives was revealed to the public. According to the document, the FSA agreed to hand over the entire harvest to the councils in return for $22 million. The revenue as well as the applicable tax, would be deposited in Turkish banks PTT and Ziraat.

Border gate named Olive Branch

After the protocol, Turkey built a border crossing in the Kumlu district of Hatay province in order to facilitate trade with the region, naming the new gate “Olive Branch.” Since 2018 olives have been brought to Turkey without any customs checks. Under Turkey’s regulations, companies buying olives from the Agricultural Credit Cooperatives of Turkey need to export their products within six months, without offering them to the domestic market.

Domestic producers also affected

According to the Turkish Statistical Institute’s (TurkStat) 2019 figures, olive oil worth $44.5 million was brought from Afrin. Much of this was allegedly introduced into the domestic market as domestically produced. As the olive oil originating from Afrin was sold at lower prices, its penetration into the Turkish market negatively impacted the sales of domestic producers. Speaking to Turkish Minute, manufacturers from Turkey’s Mediterranean region said the trade with Afrin brought the price of olive oil down to the same level as that of sunflower oil.

Mahmut Şan, a local journalist in the border province of Hatay, livestreamed a social media video on Nov. 25, 2020, featuring vehicles bringing olives from Afrin. A court subsequently ordered removal of the video.

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