Boycott of Turkish products: ‘Resistance is not only military’

Boycotts of Turkish products are ongoing in both the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and in the autonomously governed northeast of Syria. There are similarities: in both regions, the people started the boycott and many business people support it. But there are striking differences too. A report from Qamislo and Sulaymanya.

A stroll through the central market in Qamislo, the biggest city in northeast Syria, confirms that a boycott of Turkish products is widely supported. Not buying Turkish food, clothes and household necessities isn’t just a responsibility of consumers here, but of sales people as well: most of them refuse to sell Turkish products any longer. It is remarkable though that the administration too is pondering its contribution, and institutions like the university are playing their part. University co-rector Rohan Mistefa: ‘We have a role to play in the resistance.’

When Turkey attacked northeast Syria on 9 October last year, boycotts were quickly declared in Başur (Kurdistan in Iraq) and by Kurds in the diaspora in Europe and the US. In the lands where the invasion actually took place, the initial priority was of course different: the Turkish army and its mercenaries attacked, tens of thousands of people fled to safer areas and dozens of people were killed, among whom the leading Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf. 

Phosphorus bomb

It didn’t take long, though, before the awareness rose that a boycott was necessary. And it was the university in Qamislo that decided to take the initiative and form a commission to organize it. Co-rector Mistefa is on that commission. In one of the university’s meeting rooms, she said that not all her colleagues were enthusiastic: ‘Some people said that we are a scientific, educational institute and should stay away from politics. Many others disagreed. The Turkish invasion affects all aspects of life, so how can we stand aside? The university has even been closed for some time after the invasion. We have to take our responsibility. Resistance has many forms and is definitely not only military.’

Boycott poster in the city centre of Qamislo, January 2020. Photo: Fréderike Geerdink

But for the Kurds and other groups in the northeast of Syria, the boycott is not just an angry reaction to the violation of the integrity of their lands but more than anywhere directly connected to their very survival. Or, as Mistefa put it: ‘Every Turkish product we buy returns to us in the form of a phosphorus bomb or bullet.’ At several locations in the city centre stickers can be seen that reflect the situation well, for example one with a belt with bullets and one bottle of Zer soft drink, a Turkish brand. 

In a way, that is not very different from the situation in Kurdistan in Iraq. The PKK has had its base camps in the mountainous border regions for decades now and in Turkey’s war against the group, which has intensified since the so-called peace process in Turkey ended in the summer of 2015, dozens, if not hundreds of citizens have lost their lives as their villages, roads and fields were targeted by Turkish bombings. 

Rat race

There is an important difference though between the Kurdistan Region and Iraq and the administration of the northeast of Syria While the first maintains a good relationship with the Turkish government and with president Erdogan and is economically fully dependent on Turkey, the latter proposes a more independent political position towards its northern neighbour. It is looking for peace with Turkey, but strives to make its autonomously administered region politically and economically independent. Which is again part of the administration’s anti-capitalist ideology, which tries to organize (part of) its economy in communes and isn’t aiming to develop its land in the capitalist rat race. 

In a shop selling household items in Qamislo, a few Turkish products can still be found. In the back of the shop for example, Pasabahce tulip-shaped tea glasses are on the shelves. Owner Musa Ahmed said that before the boycott, half of the products in his shop were Turkish, now only some five percent. He showed some crockery that he now buys mainly from Iran and Iraq, and said: ‘These products are more expensive than the Turkish ones, and of less quality.’
Ahmed Isa, who owns a clothing shop, sold clothes from Turkey before and now gets all his merchandise from Aleppo. And he said, shrugging his shoulders: ‘The quality is lower, but what can we do?’ 

Asking around at Qamislo’s fruit and vegetable market, it is clear that here too non-Turkish products predominate. One customer, Sona Kevorkian, just bought cucumbers and when asked where they were from, she answered: ‘Jordan. You know, before the boycott, I didn’t really pay attention and there were Turkish products here that I bought, but now I pay more attention.’

Mohammed Ibrahim Mamo at the market in Qamislo. Photo: Fréderike Geerdink

How deeply personal the boycott is in this part of Kurdistan is shown by the anger that explodes from salesman Mohammed Ibrahim Mamo, who sells radish that was grown in the region. He held his thumb against his chin – a local gesture to symbolize ISIS – and stated that even before the boycott, he always refused to sell Turkish products. He said: ‘I lost seventeen family members in the war against ISIS, they all fought in the YPG and lost their lives in the battles for Kobani and Raqqa. ISIS and Turkey are the same.’ 

Different factions

Diversifying the origin of products is harder in northeast Syria than in the Kurdistan Region for several reasons. For one, the airport in Qamislo hardly has any international traffic and has been under control of the Syrian government throughout the Syrian war. Land borders with Iraq are in use, but products from Iraq and further, for example Iran, are more expensive. At the market, many commodities are Syrian and even those are not very easy to obtain at a reasonable price, as Mistefa explained: ‘There are always many checkpoints on the way between anywhere in Syria and  this region, and at many checkpoints, manned by different factions in the war, goods are ‘taxed’. This increases prices.’

For the association of business owners in Qamislo, this was a reason to get involved in the boycott. Co-chair Azad Majdar Abdalla sat in his office and said they are helping their roughly two thousand members diversify. Abdallah: ‘Some goods are not so easy to find at a good price and quality, like oil and rice and tea, which are products that used to come from Turkey. Tea and rice are now more often imported from Egypt and China, while we get oil even from Ukraine.’

In an effort to get the prices down, a delegation of the association went to the Kurdistan Region in Iraq to try to persuade the authorities to lower taxes on goods destined for northeast Syria. To the question whether they were open to the suggestion, he answered: ‘We didn’t talk with the authorities in the Kurdistan Region directly. We have talked to groups of business people like ours and explained the situation, so that they can pressure their government.’

Warmest ties

It is typical of the complicated political situation that the Syrian-Kurdish delegation only visited Sulaymanya, the second city in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, and not its capital city of Erbil. This is due to the fact that the party that politically controls the Sulaymanya region, the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) is ideologically closer to the Kurds in Syria than the party that controls the northern part of the Region, the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party), whose leading Barzani family has the warmest ties with Turkey. Abdalla: ‘So, the business people in Sulaymanya will talk with their associates in Erbil, who may then knock on the doors of their leaders.’

The business people in Sulaymanya were on their Kurdish brothers’ side, Abdalla said, but whether the Kurdistan Region’s leaders, who are close with Turkey, can be convinced to implement measures that are unfavourable for the already ailing Turkish economy, remains to be seen. Abdalla, hopeful: ‘This boycott was started by the people so maybe they will listen.’ He added that in the end, the goal of the administration in northeast Syria is to be as self-sufficient as possible, so as not to depend on anybody. He said: ‘This is why we have to invest in our agriculture.’

Local northeast Syrian wheat being classified in a lab in Raqqa province, July 2019. Photo: Fréderike Geerdink

The organizers of the boycott in northeast Syria have asked their autonomous administration to give the boycott movement a boost by implementing a taxation system that, more than it does now, will discourage the purchase of Turkish goods and favour others. Rohan Mistefa: ‘They said they will look at it. And yes, I believe that they will. They just said that they can’t take such decisions hastily since they always have to carefully weigh the interests of the people.’

Store chains

In the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, the boycott gets a lot of support, but Turkey has a much bigger and much more institutionalized presence there than in Kurdistan in Syria. Famous Turkish store chains like Flo (shoes), Istikbal (furniture), LC Waikiki (clothes), among many others, still get enough customers and the chance that they will be forced to withdraw from Kurdistan because of the boycott seems negligible. Such Turkish chain shops do not exist in Kurdistan in Syria. Needless to say, warm political ties do not stand in the way of breaking economic ties with Turkey for the Syrian Kurds, as such ties are non-existent.
University co-rector Mistefa: ‘What we will have to focus on for goods that we can’t produce ourselves is the rest of Syria. We are part of Syria, after all.’

LC Waikiki in a shopping mall in Sulaymanya, Kurdistan Region in Iraq

Maybe that is the biggest difference between the boycotts in  the Kurdistan Region in Iraq
and in the autonomously governed regions in northeast Syria: the aim of the first is to boycott Turkey, while the aim of the latter has always been to implement a less capitalist, more self-sufficient system, which was only amplified and sped up by the Turkish invasion and subsequent boycott. 

How meticulous is Rohan Mistefa in her shopping, by the way? She shared the story of her five-year-old son, who was shocked when his mom came back from grocery shopping and handed his favourite yoghurt to him. ‘Mom’, he exclaimed, ‘this is bad!’ At first she didn’t understand, but he explained that he had seen that very same package on TV with a big red cross through it. She checked and indeed, the yoghurt was a Turkish product. Rohan Mistefa: ‘I had paid attention while shopping and bought no Turkish products, only this yoghurt because I know he likes it to much. I won’t buy it again.’

The anecdote ended endearingly: ‘What did we do with the yoghurt? My son ate it. He couldn’t resist.’