Syrian factories relocating to coastal area
LATAKIA - Syrian factories are gradually moving out of the war-ransacked northern commercial province of Aleppo, heading west to the Mediterranean coast under the apparent blessing and encouragement of the embattled regime of President Bashar Assad.
Aleppo was known for its ancient souks, but they have been mostly destroyed in the war. Many of the province’s factories meanwhile, which maintained their tradition of manufacturing soap and textile products such as cotton T-shirts, socks and threads, moved to neighbouring Turkey.
Assad’s government accused Turkey of “stealing” them from Syria and filed a lawsuit in a French court seeking compensation from Ankara and the return of the factories.
The regime-approved relocation to western Syria though, according to the government, is meant to protect the remaining local industries by stationing them in “safe areas” after at least two dozen Syrian factories relocated due to fighting between the army and opposition groups seeking to topple Assad.
Syrian activists decried the move as another ploy aimed at creating industries in two coastal provinces which they say Assad plans to transform into an enclave for his ruling Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shia Islam, before his regime crumbles.
The two designated provinces are Latakia and Tartus, both on the eastern Mediterranean bordering Turkey in the north and Lebanon to the south.
Both areas have been spared the bloodshed of Syria’s civil war, which began with peaceful demonstrations in March 2011 and descended into an all-out war that has killed 313,000 civilians, rebels and government forces, according to the Britain-based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“This is another Assad gimmick to lure national industries into his Alawite enclave,” said Ahmed Qassem, head of the Independent National Authority, a group of independent and moderate Syrian activists in exile opposed to Assad.
“Assad wants to shore up the finances of his enclave and future seat of presidency by inviting investments there to ensure its continuity and survival,” Qassem told The Arab Weekly in a telephone interview from Turkey.
In Damascus, however, the Ministry of Industry said the repositioning was “temporary and the owners of these factories can return to base in Aleppo once confrontations are over”.
The ministry said that factories operating in any area witnessing confrontations can “relocate to any area in Syria”.
But ministry records obtained by The Arab Weekly showed that most of the factories that relocated were from Aleppo and had moved to Latakia, Tartus and Homs, north of Damascus.
According to the Syrian Chambers of Industry, 109 factories moved out of Aleppo in 2013 and 2014. Of the total, 41 relocated to Latakia and 52 to Tartus, while the remaining 16 set up bases in Hisya Industrial City, situated near Homs.
Sami Kiomejian, owner of factory producing electric cables, told The Arab Weekly that the relocation was “forced upon us by the violent confrontations in Aleppo, which is making it hard for us to continue working there”.
He said power cuts, the dangers posed to his factory’s workers in Aleppo and the risk that his factory may be vandalised or looted, forced him to relocate to Latakia.
“But to say the move has political ramifications or that it is planned by the government is utterly untrue,” Kiomejian insisted.
Abdul Qader Sabbagh, who owns a factory manufacturing soap, told The Arab Weekly that it cost him more than $100,000 to relocate to Tartus. “Work is going well here and I’m selling my products in the local market in Tartus as well as Latakia, Damascus, Homs and Hama,” Sabbagh said.
He said he was also making use of the Latakia port for importing raw material for his factory and exporting the final product.
Another factor is the presence of an estimated 1.2 million internally displaced Syrians, who may opt to buying his products.
“I won’t go back to Aleppo,” he said. He stressed that he was “sure that no armed confrontations will reach Tartus because of its demographic makeup, which is loyal to the Syrian leadership”.
Sabbagh said that some factories in Aleppo were vandalised or looted because their owners either supported the armed militias or were loyal to the regime. “It was purely political and had nothing to do with the reality on the ground,” he said.
Another Syrian industrialist, who, fearing security harassment, refused to be identified, told The Arab Weekly that he turned down government incentives to leave Aleppo.
“Moving out of Aleppo is treason for the unique status of the province being the country’s commercial and industrial hub,” he said. “Those who moved out will eventually regret it.”
“I will leave my factory closed no matter how long the war lasts,” he said. He stressed he was not afraid that his factory may be looted, saying he hired security guards to watch over it.
But Khaled Sabouni, the owner of a detergent company who moved his business to Tartus, said most of the factories that repositioned were specialised in light industries.
“It’s too costly and very risky to relocate heavy industries because the machines would need a longer time to be transported elsewhere, exposing them to armed bandits,” Sabouni said.