Syria's war hits Turkish car rental companies

At least 473 vehicles owned by Turkish rental car companies have been smuggled into Syria.

al-monitor Islamic State fighters wave flags as they take part in a parade, while a fellow fighter stands on the back of a truck at the Syrian town of Tel Abyad, near the border with Turkey, Jan. 2, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Yaser Al-Khodor.

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turkey, syria, smuggling, business, border

Dec 9, 2014

Turkey’s car rental companies are the latest victims of the Syria war. More than 30 companies operating in various cities have complained to police that their luxury 4x4 vehicles have been smuggled to Syria. The culprit at the center of the scam was caught by company owners and handed over to police, but he managed to escape. Police are now looking for 473 vehicles, 124 of them considered to be high-value 4x4s.

Hasan Said Yuksekbas is accused of smuggling the vehicles to Syria, either to sell them to regime opponents or to the Islamic State (IS). Bulent Ulasoglu, owner of a company in Istanbul, said: “Despite the dangers, I went to Syria to find my 10 vehicles. But the man who took our vehicles was set free despite so many complaints.”

A gang is said to have swindled scores of car rental companies and sold the cars and pickup trucks in Syria. Yuksekbas is said to have conned about 40 car rental companies in Istanbul, Izmir, Mersin, Elazig, Ankara, Kahramanmaras, Adana, Hatay and Antalya out of 500 vehicles in one year. Yuksekbas introduced himself as a businessman in the transport business at Iskendurun and Mersin ports, and told the rental companies that he was looking for 4x4 vehicles. Some companies, lured by the potential revenue, not only rented out their vehicles but borrowed from banks at high interest to buy new vehicles. Yuksekbas did not default on payments for the first few months and gained the confidence of car rental companies who then went out and bought even more vehicles for him to rent.

Yuksekbas, boasting that his business was doing great, asked for luxury-class vehicles like the Toyota HiLux, Volkswagen Amarok, Mitsubishi L200, Isuzu D-Max and Nissan Navara. The companies, which were charging Yuksekbas monthly fees from 2,000 to 3,000 Turkish lira [$882 to $1,323], did not hesitate to take out new loans to buy more vehicles. But after July, Yuksekbas started to miss payments. It was discovered that the GPS instruments in vehicles were removed and installed in other vehicles. Company owners, upon hearing that the gang led by Yuksekbas had taken the vehicles to Syria and sold them to IS or opposition groups for $5,000 to $7,000, lodged complaints to prosecutors in several cities.

Yuksekbas was caught by the victims in Adana on Dec. 1 and handed over to police. Yuksekbas, who had a fake ID and an unlicensed gun, managed to escape while being taken for fingerprinting by the police. Three policemen were penalized, and Adana police chief Cengiz Zeybek set up a special team to take on the case. Yuksekbas was caught again in Hatay on Dec. 4, but the prosecutor let him go free, angering the victims. Yuksekbas is reported to have rejected the charges, saying, “I am an Alevi. I won’t sell cars to IS. I had a car rental office and they stole my cars also.”

Bulent Ulasoglu, the owner of Kayra Car Rental Company in Istanbul, said he filed a lawsuit for the 10 luxury 4x4s he lost to the gang. He said: "It started with two vehicles. I used all my savings to make it 10 vehicles. Six months later, Mersin police called me and said my GPS was installed in another vehicle. Last month I took the risk and went to Syria and toured the cities controlled by the Kurdish PYD [Democratic Union Party]. I couldn’t find any of them. The swindler is free and we are on the verge of bankruptcy.”

Faruk Salman, the owner of Farksal Automotive in Kahramanmaras, said: “[Yuksekbas] said he found us through the Internet and wanted four 4x4 tow trucks for the port of Iskendurun. In three months we bought 13 Toyota Hiluxes and three Volkswagen Amaroks and rented them out for 2,500 Turkish lira [$1,102] monthly. For four months there was no problem. But when he stopped paying the fees, we found out that he had dismantled the GPS instruments. Some of our vehicles are in Syria. The others they couldn’t take across because of new security measures at the border are hidden in safe houses in Turkey. A big gang has thoroughly swindled us."

Kadir Donenci, owner of an Istanbul rental company, said: “He rented 11 4x4s from us and took them to Syria. It was simple to smuggle them across at Reyhanli-Hacipasa. The ones he couldn’t take across are somewhere in Turkey.”

Yuksekbas is accused of smuggling mostly fancy 4x4 vehicles to Syria. Such flatbed pickups are easily transformed into weapon carriers by installing heavy machine guns and anti-aircraft guns. They are, of course, suitable for transporting personnel and supplies on any kind of road.

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