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Turkey: All roads lead to Istanbul

In a sign of its rising influence, Turkey dazzles Middle East consumers.

The last absolute monarch of the Ottoman Empire, Abdulhamid II was long despised in Syria, under Ottoman control for more than 400 years. Popular Syrian series portrayed the sultan as an autocratic despot out to destroy their people.

But his pre-World War II refusal to sell land in Palestine to Zionists in exchange for the paying off of the Empire’s debt and a brand new navy has changed his legacy from that of despot to hero, and a new series this year, "Suqut al-Khilafa" (Fall of the Caliphate), paints a rosy picture of the sultan.

The lifting of visa restrictions last fall brought the already burgeoning relationship to new heights. A well-paved road runs the five kilometers from A’zaz to the border, where the Turkish and Syrian flags hang side by side.

With no visas, the exchange of goods and labor has become increasingly free — from Turkish capital inflows to projects in northern Syria to rising numbers of Syrian workers in Turkey’s southeast. But as legal trade becomes easier, so does smuggling.

“Smuggling is a way of life in Syria,” said Andrew Tabler, the next generation fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and co-founder and former editor of Syria Today, who explained that goods ranging from mechanical parts to fuel have been making their way illegally across the border.

Syria’s trade with Turkey is also deeply one-sided. In 2009, Turkey’s exports amounted to $1.4 billion, while Syria only exported $328 million in exchange. Many here are beginning to ask whether the free trade agreement is just another form of neo-colonialism in which Syria’s industry is being overwhelmed by bigger, and more efficient, Turkish companies.

“You need to introduce competition to reform the markets, but opening up to Turkish competition has exposed the Syrian market to a tremendous amount of hurt,” said Tabler. “I wouldn’t call it tough love, but maybe good pain? Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and Syria is not very good at that.”