An Olive's Odyssey

In Syria’s north-west provinces, a different kind of oil fuels the wartime economy–olive oil. For some, olive oil sales represent Turkish exploitation; for others, it is the resumption of a historic trade suppressed by civil war. For the olive farmers of Afrin, the saga is a tale of economic survival in the midst of war.

When Turkish troops moved into Northern Syria in 2018 to push out Kurdish forces operating there, they established de facto control over Afrin’s olive trees. Olive oil from the Afrin area has been prized for cooking, and it has also been used to manufacture world-famous olive oil soap from Aleppo. The trade has been through challenging times over the course of the war. As production costs rose, labor grew scarce, and domestic markets shriveled in the face of economic collapse, many olive growers turned to Turkish market.

Now, Turkey is reported to use the olive oil trade—estimated in 2018 to have been in excess of $130 million—to finance militias supporting their objectives in the region. But as Turkey has further secured its control of Afrin, oil from the region is increasingly being exported to grocers in Europe and the United States. While some in the West celebrate these products as evidence of an economy persisting amid violence, others claim that the current trade subjects Afrin’s olive farmers to militia racketeering, displacement, and exploitation.

Turkish authorities argue that their control of the market benefits Syrians, but farmers say Turkish intervention does little for local farmers. One farmer in Afrin even resorted to smuggling his 100-year old trees out of Syria and into Kurdish-controlled Iraq.

With Syria’s agricultural GDP experiencing a 41 percent contraction by 2015 resulting from the ongoing conflict and the long-term effects of climate change, the problems facing the country’s olive farmers are many. Ancient olive trees have often survived decades of war. Afrin’s farmers hope that they and their trees survive the present one.

This article is part of the CSIS Middle East Program series Mezze: Assorted Stories from the Middle East.

Azim Wazeer

Intern, Middle East Program