Well-heeled Syrians had already been coming to the ancient Turkish industrial city of Gaziantep, drawn here by Louis Vuitton purses and storefront signs in Arabic.
But local shop owners say Israel’s deadly raid on a Turkish-led flotilla to Gaza in May has solidified an already blossoming friendship between Syria and Turkey, the new hero of the Muslim world.
“People in Syria love Turkey because the country supports the Arab world, and they are fellow Muslims,”
Zakria Shavek, 37, a driver for a Syrian transport company based in Gaziantep, said as he deposited a family of newly arrived shoppers from Aleppo,
which competes with Damascus for the title of Syria’s largest city and is about a two-hour drive from here.
“Our enemy in the world is Israel, so we also like Turkey because our enemy’s enemy is our friend.”
The monthly pilgrimages of tens of thousands of Syrians to this southeastern Turkish city —
which intensified after the two countries removed visa requirements last September —
are just the latest manifestation of the growing ties between Turkey and Syria,
part of the Turkish government’s efforts to reach out to its neighbors by using economic and cultural links to help it become a regional leader.
Turkey’s shift toward the Muslim world —
from the recent clash with Israel to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s description of Iran’s nuclear program as peaceful —
has prompted concerns in the United States and Europe that Turkey, an important NATO ally, is turning its back on the West.
But in Turkey, where 70 percent of all exports go to Europe,
businesspeople insist that the government’s policy of cultivating friendly ties with all neighbors reflects a canny and very Western capitalist impulse
to offset dependence on stagnating European markets while cementing Turkey’s position as a vital economic and political bridge between east and west.
Indeed, most Arab states, including Syria, enthusiastically support Turkey’s bid to join the European Union,
viewing Turkey as a vital intermediary to Western markets that might otherwise be off limits.
At the political level, Turkey’s influence in the Middle East is also deeply enhanced by its strong Western ties —
a fact recognized by Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, who shocked many in the Turkish capital this month by warning that
the latest crisis between Israel and Turkey could undermine Ankara’s role as a mediator in the region.
Only 10 years ago, relations between Syria and Turkey were strained,
with Turkey accusing Syria of sheltering Kurdish separatists and Syria lashing out at Turkey over water and territorial disputes.
Syrians also harbored historical resentments of Ottoman subjugation,
while many secular Turks, defined by the Western orientation of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk,
saw Syria as autocratic and backward.
With the recent elimination of border restrictions, however, Turkish exports of everything from tea to textiles to diapers are booming, along with a newfound ardor.
“Today, Arab countries that once resented us want to be like us, even if they are looking to Turks more than we are looking to them,”
said Emin Berk, a Turk who is coordinator of the Turkey-Syria Trade Office here.
Trade between Turkey and Syria more than doubled from $795 million in 2006 to $1.6 billion in 2009,
and is expected to reach $5 billion in the next three years.
Last year the Middle East received nearly 20 percent of Turkey’s exports, about $19.2 billion worth of goods, compared with 12.5 percent in 2004.
In Iran, Turkish companies are making products including fertilizer and sanitary products for women.
Iran, in turn, is an important source of energy to Turkey.
Here in Gaziantep — whose past is so intertwined with Syria’s that it was part of Aleppo Province during the Ottoman Empire —
the signs of the new honeymoon between Turkey and Syria are everywhere.
Every Friday, several thousand Syrians descend on the center of town.
Lured by bargains and Western brands, most head immediately to the Sanko Park shopping mall, the largest in town,
where their lavish shopping sprees have made them coveted customers.
In the city’s bazaars, pistachio vendors summon passers-by in Arabic, while Arabic courses for Turkish businessmen are flourishing.
Marriages between Turks and Syrians have become more common.
In Syria, meanwhile, where the alliance with secular Turkey represents a move away from its courtship with Iran,
Turkey’s blend of conservative Islam and cosmopolitan democracy is increasingly viewed as a model in the younger generation.
Turkish soap operas and films are attaining cult status, while “Made in Turkey” labels near the cachet of Paris or Milan.
Turkish businesspeople here say that regardless of whether the governing party’s politics is driving economics or the other way around,
what matters is that the new openness to the east is enhancing the bottom line.
Cengiz Akinal, managing director of Akinal Bella, a large shoe manufacturer, said that
the Islamic-inspired politics of the governing Justice and Development Party had helped ease relations with Arabic clients.
The company, which exports a majority of its shoes to Europe, increased its exports to Syria by 40 percent last year.
Mr. Akinal, whose ancestors imported leather from Syria during the Ottoman Empire and produced shoes for the sultans,
recently shifted part of the company’s manufacturing to Aleppo and Damascus, where monthly wages are about half those of Turkey.
But he said Syria was still decades behind Turkey when it came to quality standards and technical know-how.
“Turkey may be 15 years behind Europe, but Syria is still 30 years behind Turkey,” he said.
Indeed, businesspeople say the shift toward the Middle East is forcing them to change the way they do business after decades of trying to cultivate Western European attitudes.
Mr. Akinal noted, for example, that negotiations with Arabic corporate clients over price were reminiscent of a Middle Eastern bazaar rather than a boardroom.
“With Europeans, you can have a deal in a half an hour,” he said. “With Syrians, I sometimes spend the whole day bargaining.”
While most people here welcome the Syrian invasion, some Turks complained that the Syrians were pushing up the prices of everything from hotels to designer dresses.
Others lamented that Syrians’ religious conservatism was out of place in secular Turkey, according to this fascinating article in the New York Times.
“We are more liberal than they are, and it can sometimes be uncomfortable when the women arrive covered from head to toe and the men leer at you,”
said Deniz, a Turkish teenager in ripped jeans and a T-shirt, who declined to give her last name for fear of antagonizing her Syrian boss.