Reports

Imported cars bring low prices to Idlib buyers and headaches to police

By Mahmoud al-Shimale and Justin Clark

IDLIB: In opposition-held Idlib, the black market for imported European and Turkish cars thrives in the absence of any oversight or regulation.

In one of Idlib’s many unlicensed dealerships, a recent-model Mercedes sells for as little as $4,000. A lightly-used Honda pickup might go for $6,500. Dealers keep prices low by importing cars from Syria’s northern border with Turkey in opposition territory, thereby bypassing any customs, taxes, or other fees imposed by the Syrian government.

When they finally make it to Idlib’s roadways, they often do so without license plates and without being officially registered to their owners. Though the lack of oversight makes vehicles more available to the average Syrian, say car salesmen, a local policeman tells the Syrian Voice that unlicensed cars threaten the area’s security and open the door to terrorist attacks.

No taxes, no red tape

Turkish and European cars have been sold tax and customs free in Idlib since the regime lost control of large swaths of the province in 2012, says car salesman Ahmed a-Sousa.

Though new European models have stopped entering Syria since Turkey closed their ports to them in 2013, a-Sousa tells the Syrian Voice that Turkish cars continue to flow into Idlib overland and enter the black market.

Turkish customs are paid $150 for each used car and $200 for each new car, another local car salesman explains. “Dealers are cautious of buying stolen cars, so they only deal with sellers they trust. New models come with no official papers except a licensing number – but it’s useless outside Turkey.” The spread of unregistered vehicles has spawned demand for counterfeit license plates and other legal documents says dealership owner Abu Ali.

“Fake license plates are used by those afraid of being caught by the regime for buying an unregistered European car” he explains. For SP4,000 ($7.41) some dealerships will provide license plates to buyers, “but they have no actual value since they don’t have any connection to the car’s actual origins.”

‘Saving money’ amidst security risks

“Despite the chaos it’s caused, a lot of money has been saved,” car salesman Ibrahim Abu Ahmed tells the Syrian Voice. “A citizen can buy a modern car that matches their status for a reasonable price.”

Though cutting the red tape has made cars available to many who wouldn’t have access to them otherwise, it comes with its own set of issues. Most cars on Idlib’s roadways are unregistered, a regular headache for policemen like Muhammad Khadra.

“Of the biggest issues we’re facing is the lack of license plates,” Khadra tells the Syrian Voice. “When accidents or even terrorist attacks happen, there’s no way for us to know anything about the vehicles involved. We have to rely on eyewitnesses or the driver’s testimony”.

Just last month, a car bomb targeted an Ahrar a-Sham headquarters in Idlib’s northern countryside. Last May, another car bomb targeted the Shuaib mosque in Idlib city, killing five civilians and injuring dozens more.

Khadra tells the Syrian Voice he wishes the authorities would clamp down on the trade and enact laws to help regulate Idlib’s vehicles, but thus far nothing has changed.

Idlib province’s strategic location along the Turkish border means that supply convoys arrive daily to the region, the Syrian government yet unable to curtail the import of cars and other goods.

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