Syrian smuggling a rising risk for Turkey

Syrian smuggling a rising risk for Turkey

The conflict in Syria has resulted in many spillover problems in the region, also in Turkey. As the fighting continues, Turkish law enforcers are struggling to combat rising levels of illegal cross-border activities such as smuggling and trafficking.

Turkey’s Customs and Trade Ministry announced last March that the amount of seized goods in 2014 was valued at over $600 million, a nearly 50% increase over 2013 figures, driven mainly by continuing conflicts in Iraq and Syria.

In particular, smuggling of goods from Syria into Turkey has become a prominent concern as a result of ISIS and other factions gaining control over hydrocarbon production in regions of Syria, which Turkish politicians have estimated is earning the Islamic State $2 million per day.

However, illicit activities linking Turkey to Syria goes beyond smuggled gasoline, and also encompasses counterfeit money, cigarettes, and the trafficking of narcotics and humans. These illicit operations pose a risk for international energy and tobacco companies concerned about brand protection as well as financial institutions with concerns about money laundering in Turkey.

Funding from narcotics

Factions within the Syria conflict are becoming increasingly dependent on narcotrafficking to fund operations, with the drug Captagon coming to the forefront. Captagon is an amphetamine little known outside of the Middle East but nonetheless widely consumed in Persian Gulf states and increasingly used by Syrian fighters for its stimulant properties.

In the course of the conflict, Syrian smugglers have established networks to move the drug through Turkey and Lebanon into the Persian Gulf. According to the latest available figures from 2013, the amount of Captagon seized by Turkish law enforcement was 4.4 million tablets.

This is 31 times higher than in 2012, and is a result of a massive seizure in Hatay, a region bordering Syria. Most recently, on July 9th, two Syrian nationals were caught attempting to smuggle 83,000 tablets of the drug into Turkey.

In addition to illegal drugs, cigarettes, one of the most frequently smuggled items worldwide, is also a favorite item to be smuggled from Syria. The border crossing at Öncüpınar alone has seized nearly 200,000 packs of contraband cigarettes since the beginning of the year, while law enforcement operations in border villages in the region of Kilis in early July netted nearly 120,000 packs.

Other sources of money

Moreover, Syrian nationals are also increasingly bringing counterfeit American and Turkish currency into Turkey, especially in the southern regions. In February 2015, Turkey’s largest anti-counterfeit dollar operation in a decade netted $11 million in fake money and arrested two Syrian nationals.

Unsurprisingly, arms smuggling through Turkey into Syria has also been well-documented by researchers and is a source of concern for the international community. To make matters worse, trafficking networks have also begun to traffick in humans as refugees continue to flee the war zone in Syria.

The EU’s Border Security Division recently announced that refugees fleeing from Turkey (which houses 1.7 million Syrians) into Greece has increased by 500% this year.

On top of this, illegal pipelines are being constructed by smugglers to move gasoline from Syria into Turkey, a tactic already in use by gasoline smugglers on the border with Iraq. Politicians from Turkish regions bordering Syria warned last summer that ISIS was refining gasoline and constructing underground pipelines from territories under its control.

These pipelines lead into the regions of Kilis, Urfa and Gaziantep, with the region of Hatay alone possessing 1,000 such pipelines. Turkey’s General Staff announced in late May that a 300-meter pipeline used to smuggle gasoline across the border had been discovered in Hakkari.

As a result of the expansion of gas smuggling networks, 50 million liters of contraband gasoline were confiscated by Turkish law enforcement in 2014.

Branching out

In addition to the purchase of smuggled gasoline by transport companies with large fleets of trucks, gasoline stations receiving black-market gas are also setting up sophisticated systems to keep smuggled gasoline being sold off the books, as a police operation in Bolu in northwestern Turkey revealed in April.

An excavation of a gas station led to the discovery of hidden tanks with 190 metric tons of total capacity that were able to operate at night using a separate system installed within the station’s pumps. 33 people were arrested across the country as part of the smuggling network tied to the station.

Law enforcement has carried out snap inspections of gasoline stations to make sure all regulations are being followed and increased border controls, but smuggling and counterfeiting emanating from Turkey’s south will continue as long as Syria remains entrenched in a civil war that has led to the collapse of its economy and border security.

About Author

Luke Rodeheffer

Luke Rodeheffer is a cyberthreat researcher at Flashpoint in New York City. He holds an MA from Stanford University, where he was a FLAS Fellow for Turkish. Luke was previously a Fulbright Fellow in Ukraine and a research assistant at Koç University in Istanbul. You can follow him on Twitter @LukeRodeheffer