North Syria: Business hub hoping recovery from war

Abu Omar al-smelter Shihabi’s in northern Syria’s rebel-held city of Al-Bab churns out iron bars that he claims can rival with any produced in Syria and abroad.

The industrial zone is an unusual location for a corporate centre. It sits between a Turkish border wall to the north and a frontline with Syrian government forces to the south, on the outskirts of a city that was once held by Islamic State.

However, the zone, which is one of five in the region controlled by Turkey-backed rebels, is critical to efforts to rebuild an economy that has been ravaged by suffering and damage throughout Syria’s 11-year conflict.

Six years after Turkish soldiers and Syrian rebels pushed Islamic State out of the region and prevented a Kurdish force from filling the hole, success might bring desperately needed jobs and opportunity.

Turkey believes that the country’s stability will persuade some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it presently accommodates to return to Syria.

Shihabi claims that his iron smelter benefits greatly from the low salaries in northern Syria and the availability of scrap metal left over from years of fighting.

“In Syria, I can compete with the Turks with my own products,” Shihabi added, referring to his sales to rebel-held areas as well as Turkey.

With Turkish assistance, the industrial zone, which houses roughly 30 firms and workshops, was constructed four years ago on the route north of Al-Bab.

Ankara’s lasting influence since its 2016 military incursion is highlighted by a sign across the road that bisects the zone, which is printed in both Arabic and Turkish. In the region, the Turkish lira is widely used, and Turkish officials assist in the administration of schools and hospitals.

According to businessman Omar Waki, who founded the project, enterprises in the industrial zone produce a variety of commodities, including iron bars for construction, shoes, garments, mats, mineral water, and tehina.

“The most compelling reason (to start operations) is the cheap cost. In comparison to other locations, labour is inexpensive for us “he stated

Turkey‘s average worker earns $400 per month (a month). It’s a fourth of that here.”

Before 2011, when protests against President Bashar al-Assad spiralled into a civil war, many businesses fled to Turkey, northern Syria, particularly the city of Aleppo, 30 kilometres (18 miles) southwest of Al-Bab, was Syria’s commercial powerhouse.

The majority of products in the Al-Bab zone are sold within the rebel-held northern territories, while some do reach further afield via frontlines or borders.

Despite low labour costs, industrial zone enterprises face significant hurdles. The region remains exposed to a prospective invasion by Syrian government forces, and progress is hampered by weak transportation links and growing electricity bills.

Shihabi’s smelter is a sliver of the size of his pre-war company, which employed 150 people before being bombed in 2012. It now employs only 25 people, and production has dropped by roughly 90%, producing only.

After fleeing Idlib’s bombing, Abdel Khaleq Tahbash established a factory that produces floormats. Despite complaints about high electricity costs and difficulties selling abroad, he expressed delight at being in Al-Bab.

“I’d rather work in Syria,” he stated. “You can’t work in Turkey without capital, and this is my country.”

Security in the northwest, according to Waki, is improving, attracting more investors, including three Turkish enterprises. While the Al-Bab zone is small, he believes it demonstrates the resilience of Syrian enterprises.

“We can make it instead of importing it from China or Turkey. We are self-sufficient.”

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