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Turkish Border Town Feels Effects Of Syrian Unrest

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Turkish Border Town Feels Effects Of Syrian Unrest

Middle East

Turkish Border Town Feels Effects Of Syrian Unrest

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Now, one of reason that Syrians can escape to Turkey is that Turkey lifted its visa requirements on that border. That happened a couple of years ago when the Turkish-Syrian alliance was considered very strong. Syria's brutal suppression of dissent has strained that friendship.

NPR's Deborah Amos reports from the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep.

(Soundbite of music)

DEBORAH AMOS: In the open-air restaurants, the summer season has begun, but Syrian tourists who flocked here for the past few years are absent. And Turks no longer make the 90-minute drive to Aleppo, Syria's largest northern city, for bargain holidays.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

AMOS: At a local trade fair, Syrians come to attract business partners. But Ayala Zenio says Turks are now reluctant to open new deals because of the unrest. She insists the coverage in the Western media is wrong.

Ms. AYALA ZENIO: It's not so much like the TV show us, and all this.

AMOS: Are you worried about it?

Ms. ZENIO: Sometimes, yeah. I'm afraid from the future what will happen, but I hope everything will be okay.

AMOS: The economies of Aleppo, Syria's northern business center, and this southern city, have been stalled by Syria's protest movement and the government's violent response.

Mr. MUSTAPHA MUTAFUGULU (Textile Factory Owner): We were always happy, until this year. This year, we got some economical problems.

(Soundbite of machinery)

AMOS: In a tour of his textile factory here, Mustapha Mutafugulu says he opened the first and largest textile plant in Aleppo, Syria in 2001. Now, he says, many businesses there have shut down, salaries are unpaid, hotels empty - all because of the Syrian protests and violence in other parts of the country.

Mr. MUTAFUGULU: There is no business in the local market, because it affected the economy too much, and they hide away their money and the people afraid.

AMOS: Just a few months ago, the Syrian-Turkish alliance was hailed as a way to modernize Syria, to lure Syria from Iran's orbit. The relationship brought rewards for Turkish business and a political model for Syrians, says Turkish analyst Soli Ozul.

Mr. SOLI OZUL (Analyst): Those tens of thousands of Syrians who have been able to come to Turkey because there is no longer a visa requirement and have seen the way we live - that must have had some effect on how they perceive their own life conditions.

AMOS: How important is Syria to Turkish policy?

Mr. OZUL: It's the centerpiece of the government's Middle East policy. The north part of Syria is becoming an extension of the Turkish economy.

AMOS: This is why, says Ozul, Turkey urged Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, to reform before it's too late.

But Turkey has had little influence, says Gokhan Bacik, who runs a Middle East study center in Gaziantep. He predicts Turkish policy will get tougher soon, because the government has concluded the Syrian regime cannot survive without meeting at least some of the protesters' demands.

Mr. GOKHAN BACIK (Director of Middle East Study Center): Turkey is changing her mind about what's happening in Syria, because in the beginning, Turkey had expected that the regime in Syria won't, you know, use violence against its own people. But there's a fact, you know, the regime in Syria is using violence.

AMOS: Over the past week, Turkey has hosted a meeting of Syrian opposition members, stationed ambulances on the border to rescue the wounded, even sending officials to process Syrian refugees crossing the border on mountain paths -unmistakable signs, says Soli Ozul, of a shift for Turkey.

Mr. OZUL: It is kind of investing - perhaps informally - in the future, as well, which I think what infuriates the regime right now. I doubt the regime feels as warm towards Turkey as they did only four months ago.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

AMOS: Syrian shoppers still come to Gaziantep's largest mall. In private conversations, they say they do not believe Syria's president can find a way out of this crisis. One 25-year-old was willing to speak. She responds quickly and sharply to the question: Do you think the Syrian president can bring reform?

Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) No.

AMOS: You don't?

She explains: The president is not a dictator like his father, but he cannot challenge his inner circle, those who are determined to crush the protest movement at any cost.

Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) I don't think it'll go on the way it is. Something will happen at some point, because everyone's eyes have been opened.

AMOS: And in northern Syria, those eyes have turned toward Turkey. It was the place they hoped would lead to a better life. Now, many see Turkey as a place to escape violence in their own country.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)


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