Turkey in a pickle over Syrian olives

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Turkey in a pickle over Syrian olives

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Questions are being raised over the origin of Turkey's olive products

When Turkey launched a military offensive in northern Syria last January and called it Operation Olive Branch, many dismissed the name as part of a propaganda campaign.

Turkey said it wanted to rid the region of the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units. It has long fought Kurdish insurgents at home and views the fighters in Syria as part of the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Turkey.

One year on, it appears the name of the operation has also taken on a more literal meaning.

'They have been stealing the olives'

Kurds in Turkey and the Syrian region of Afrin, which Turkey now controls, have accused Turkish forces of stealing the region's olive crops.

"After this area fell to the Turkish occupation, thousands of olive trees have been cut down. It has since emerged that they have been stealing the olives," said a commentary in the Turkish Kurdish newspaper Yeni Ozgur Politika last week.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Syrian Kurds marked the first anniversary of Turkey's military operation on 20 January

The issue has been raised since the start of the olive harvest.

In September, a former agricultural council leader in Afrin, Salleh Ibo, told a PKK-linked news agency that Turkish forces had confiscated olive groves from people who had fled the area, and were taking the region's harvest back to Turkey.

"We can say that 80 percent of the olives in Afrin are being taken to Turkey," he said. "They stand to make 80m dollars from the olives they steal this way."

He said most people in Afrin made their living through olives and olive oil, and that there were about 14m productive trees there.

One sign of how emotive the issue is can be seen in the name of a Kurdish-led group that has attacked Turkish forces in Afrin. It calls itself the Wrath of Olives.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Afrin is an important agricultural production region in Syria

'We want the revenues from Afrin'

Turkey has acknowledged taking Afrin's olives. It views its actions as justified given its occupation of the area, and says this is being done with the backing of the local authorities that it supports.

Agriculture Minister Bekir Pakdemirli told parliament in November that 600 tonnes of olives had "entered the country".

"We do not want revenues to fall into PKK hands," he said. "We want the revenues from Afrin… to come to us. This region in under our hegemony."

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Pro-government media have also praised Turkey's control of the Afrin olive market.

Yeni Safak newspaper reported back in November that Turkey's Agricultural Credit Cooperative and local authorities backed by Turkey were working together to sell Afrin's olives internationally.

"The Afrin olive market, worth 200m dollars a year, is being used for the benefit of the Syrian people," it said.

'The little we earn… will end'

But some of Turkey's own olive producers have been dismayed by these actions.

In Kilis province, which borders Syria, the Serhat newspaper said that olive oil from Afrin would reduce the price of local products.

"The little we earn from olives will come to an end, and agriculture in Kilis will be finished," the newspaper quoted farmers saying.

Although government officials have said the relatively small amount of olives from Afrin could not significantly affect prices in Turkey, this argument has also been used by some to question the government's actions.

"Turkey has enough olive oil for its own market and for exports… Turkey produces 16 percent of the world's total olives and eight percent of its olive oil. It doesn't need olive oil from Afrin," said one commentator in the Dunya newspaper.

"State-supported olive imports from Afrin have damaged morale in the sector," he added.

Questions have also been raised about the olive oil that Turkey is exporting to Europe.

Spanish politicians on Tuesday called on their government to make sure Spain and other European countries are not buying oil made from olives "plundered" from Afrin, the El Publico newspaper reported.

Reporting by Will Armstrong and Tse Yin Lee

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