[REPORT] Coping With A Humanitarian Crisis: The Role Of Turkey In The Syrian Civil War

Coping With A Humanitarian Crisis
One of the 6 million Syrian children in desperate need today
Source: StoryMaps ArcGis

Today, with the exponential rise of social media platforms, and their constant abundance of information, public opinion tends to become sterile. For instance, after nine years of civil war, news on the Syrian crisis hardly makes headlines.

Nevertheless, factual reality suggests that the war in Syria is still an urgent matter, especially in regard to the refugee crisis. Earlier this year fears were raised in the region of Idlib, in northwest Syria, when humanitarian organisations faced the possibility of having to deal with a Covid-19 outbreak. Moreover, while this region remains the last bastion under the control of the rebels, and some suggest that the war might be coming to an end, about 5.6 million refugees have fled Syria and are still not able to return to their country. 

The origins of the conflict can be traced to the 2011 peaceful uprising of civilians during the Arab Spring and Assad’s regime response. This was then followed by another backfire, this time by the rebels, with the help of the Free Syrian Army, a part of the larger Syrian army. The rebels later divided themselves into different factions, following different scopes and orientation, such as being joined by jihadists while in the North of the country when the Kurds joined the war. 

While at first the war might have genuinely seemed like a civil war, the ‘cold’ character fully manifested in 2012, when international powers entered the conflict. Russia and Iran, a Shiite superpower, have been supporting Assad while the Gulf States, in particular Saudi Arabia, have been financing the rebels along with Turkey, who is also fighting its own war against the Kurdish terrorist organization YPG. The certainty that the Syrian War had become a proxy war arrived with the US entrance against Assad.

Notwithstanding, the American superpower showed uncertainty in light of the fact that part of the rebels they were financing and wanting to train were extremists, such as ISIS, and Syria who founded a proper Kalifat in Syria. From 2016, the war seemed to turn in favor of Assad’s regime when the latter reconquered the city of Aleppo, with the aid of Russia. This was achieved by using, even if not for the first time, chemical weapons on its own population. This resulted in the US bombing Assad’s airbase. Finally, as stated above, the war appears to be coming to an end with the advance of the regime’s troops

Thus, as one can see, the Syrian Civil War has never just taken the form of a civil war: it has always been more. It is the territorial war between Saudi Arabia and Iran for hegemonic control of Syria. It is the war against Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group. It is the war between the West and Al Qaeda, ISIS, and all the Sunni fundamentalists. It is the perpetuation of the Cold War between Russia and the US. Finally, it is the war of Syrian civilians against a regime that fired bullets on them even if they marched 6 months in non-violent protests before backfiring. 

Coping With A Humanitarian Crisis
Source: Statista (2018)

The Syrian War consists of many wars but most importantly it represents an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe: 5.6 million Syrians have fled the country and, whilst the country is opening borders for some tourists, its inhabitants cannot return to their homes. 90% of these refugees are in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, and, particularly, Turkey. 1 million refugees reside in Europe, mostly between Germany and Sweden, but only the lucky ones made it to these Western countries since 1 out of 18 of those who try to cross the Mediterranean die.  

The Syrian war has had a significant impact on Turkey, both on a domestic and a foreign point of view. The civil war might have influenced Turkey’s military expenditure, which increased by 86% over the last decade, reaching $20.4 billion in 2019. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has reported a growth of 27% in military expenditure between 2017 and 2018 and a 5.8% increase between 2018 and 2019.

Coping With A Humanitarian Crisis: The Role Of Turkey In The Syrian Civil War
A Syrian Refugee Camp in Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria Border.
Source: LEFTERIS PITARAKIS / AP

The refugee crisis caused by the war led Turkey to host the highest number of refugees in the world, roughly 3 million. The presence of refugees in the country was predicted to be temporary but, after 9 years, the country has started to implement long term solutions, including a process of integration of the refugees, as the Syrian conflict and the refugee crisis do not seem to have an immediate solution.

From being confined within camps, the refugees have started moving into rural and urban areas of the country and becoming active members of Turkish society, hence seeking jobs. Research shows that the influx of refugees has negatively affected employment, decreasing the probability of finding a job both for women and men (Esen and Binatlı, 2017). It has been also observed that regions with a high intensity of Syrian refugees have higher rates of unemployment. The effective integration of Syrian refugees into the formal labour market may be beneficial, generating more demand. But the political and economic instability of Turkey seems to pose a limit to the incorporation of an increase in the labour force and it is crucial to note that this instability is not merely caused by the refugees’ influx into the country.

In June, the Daily Sabah reported that Turkey has been enhancing its influence in Syria, injecting the Turkish Lira into Idlib. Due to the US sanction imposed on Syria under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, the Syrian Pound has plummeted, and prices have skyrocketed. The use of the Turkish Lira is deemed to be beneficial as the currency is more valuable. That is why the Turkish Lira was easily accepted; the Salvation Army started paying wages in Turkish Lira and the price of food and oil started being shown in the Turkish currency. This may cause a further decrease in the value of the Syrian Pound due to a decrease in demand for the currency. Sharing a statement on his twitter account, Abdurrahman Mustafa, head of the Syrian Interim Government and the Syrian Turkmen Assembly, declared that:

“In freed regions of Syria, where there is already use of the Turkish Lira resulting from the drop in the value of the Syrian Pound; the increased circulation of the Turkish Lira is a temporary step in order to protect savings of civilians, which will end when a political solution is found. Therefore, to add political meanings to this step is incorrect.”

Coping With A Humanitarian Crisis: The Role Of Turkey In The Syrian Civil War

The words of Abdurrahman Mustafa suggest that this is neither a propagandistic move nor the first attempt of economic annexation; perhaps it seems to be a pragmatic, temporary solution to the collapse of the Syrian Pound since the latter could dramatically affect people’s savings.

Sources and Further Reading:

Esen, Oğuz & Binatlı, 2017. “The Impact of Syrian Refugees on the TurkishEconomy: Regional Labour Market Effects”.

“Idlib follows suit in adopting Turkish lira to shield region from plummeting Syrian pound”, Daily Sabah.

NY MAPPER, YouTube. 2020. “Syrian Civil War and Spillover: Every Day”

Tastekin, Fehim. 2020. “Why is Ankara pouring Turkish liras into Syria?”. Al-Monitor.

UNHCR. 2018. “Syria Emergency”

Aurora Ceccotti
Filippo Angeli

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