By Daren Butler
GAZIANTEP, Turkey (Reuters) - Worry etched across their grizzled faces, truck drivers line up their vehicles at Turkey's Oncupinar border gate, ready to run the gauntlet on a road they dread taking: south into Syria.
Since Turkey late last year took the side of anti-government demonstrators seeking the downfall of President Bashar al-Assad, truckers plying the route between the border and the Syrian city of Aleppo have made an easy target for Assad loyalists.
Banking on safety in numbers, the truckers try to travel in convoys.
"They prefer to enter Syria together because their vehicles have been shot at and stoned," said Zafer Aydinguler, head of a haulage association in Gaziantep, a city in southeast Turkey 100 km (60 miles) north of Aleppo.
The United Nations estimates that some 5,000 people have been killed in the violence in Syria; the Syrian authorities say 2,000 police and soldiers have died fighting foreign-backed "terrorists."
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has demanded the resignation of his one-time friend Assad and in November ordered economic sanctions, which aim at Assad's government while trying to spare Syrian people more hardship. These include freezing state assets, banning entry by senior officials and suspending financial dealings. Although Turkey still trades with Syria, it is seeking alternative transport routes to export goods to other countries in the Middle East, which it estimates will cost Syria over $100 million in transport fees annually.
The Syrian government retaliated by imposing a 30 percent trade tariff, and this month it cleared out its consulate in Gaziantep, historically one of the gateways from Anatolia to the Middle East.
Gaziantep, the sixth largest city in Turkey with a population of more than 1 million and industries ranging from food and textiles to chemicals, has been hit hard by the deterioration of economic ties with Syria.
While the city's exports to Syria were previously only around $150 million, they have fallen by close to one-third since the Syrian unrest began, and the cost to Gaziantep is magnified by the loss of visitors from Syria.
Some 60,000 Syrians used to cross the border monthly, providing a contribution of around $1 billion a year to Gaziantep and the economy of the border region. The number of visitors from Syria has now dropped to around 1,000 people a month.
"The hotels where people stayed, the restaurants where they ate, the malls where they shopped, all the traders have been negatively affected," said Gaziantep Chamber of Commerce chairman Mehmet Aslan.
Located far from wealthy western parts of Turkey, Gaziantep is one of the Anatolian cities that has prospered most from the country's economic boom over the past decade.
Its newfound wealth is evident in many new hotels and office blocks, and the city's investment in a museum to show off its biggest tourist draw, an extensive collection of Roman mosaics.
Syrian visitors used to flock to the Imam Cagdas restaurant, founded in 1887, to sample its pistachio-and-honey baklava sweet pastries, but not any more. Owner Burhan Cagdas reckons he used to get 100 Syrian customers a week, but now sees only ten.
"Now they say they feel Turkey has turned against Syria. It is sad to see this because we are neighbors," Cagdas said.
Aydinguler said the number of vehicles entering Syria had fallen by around 60 percent since the unrest started, because of both growing security risks and a doubling of customs duties that has caused truckers to opt for longer journeys through Iraq to serve Middle Eastern markets.
Sitting in a chamber of commerce office in Kilis, a Turkish town of 120,000 people less than half an hour's drive from the border post, businessman Mehmet Erdal Ondes despaired at the way Turkish-Syrian relations had been turned on their head, reckoning that his area's trade with Syria was down by almost three-quarters.
"We were friends and we became enemies," Ondes said. "Trade is in an awful state at the moment. Our area is totally dependent on Syria and the trade has been cut off."
The freight rate for a truck entering Syria has rocketed to $2,500 from around $300 before the unrest broke out last March, he said.
Turkey has traditionally been Syria's largest trading partner, with bilateral trade worth $2.5 billion in 2010. But on a national level, Syria has not been as important to Turkey; Turkish exports to Syria were $1.6 billion in 2011, a small fraction of Turkey's overall exports last year of $135 billion, according to official Turkish data.
Exports to Syria have dropped about 30 percent from a year earlier in the last few months. But that figure understates the impact of the disruption of regional trucking routes on Turkish businesses in the border area, businessmen say.
"In Saudi Arabia in particular we achieved serious potential in the carpet sector. Now we are trying to get carpet deliveries from Mersin to Alexandria, and from there via the Suez Canal to Saudi Arabia. This brings with it a hike in costs and times," Aslan said.
In Kilis, there is also widespread concern at the possibility of Syrian refugees being housed near the town. The fear is that some 7,500 Syrian refugees at relief camps in Hatay could be relocated to camps near Kilis, leading to a closure of the border gate.
"We don't want refugees coming here. Our people are in a poor state. Some 15,000 people make their living from this border gate," said Abidin Patlar, 58, a district official.
(Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Andrew Torchia)