Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 6 minutes

The Best-Laid Plans

When the Syrian crisis first broke out, Ankara planned for a short, easily resolved conflict. As the civil war stretches into its third year, Turkey needs to rethink its refugee strategy or face burdensome expenditure and increasing regional tensions.

Syria’s catastrophe is increasingly leaping over the border of its northern neighbor, Turkey, igniting a whole new set of challenges for the Ankara government and blurring what was once a hard Cold War frontier.

At least 300,000 Syrian refugees have now officially fled to Turkey, with the real number probably 450,000 and set to double this year. Turkey has spent hundreds of millions of dollars, which it can barely afford, looking after them, and so far aid from its allies and donors is covering only a fraction of outgoings.

Pressed against the Turkish border, 100,000 more Syrians are waiting. Turkey only lets in a trickle, hoping their problems can be dealt with inside northern Syria. Currently, only a small amount of humanitarian aid can cross the Turkey–Syria border, limited by sovereign sensitivities at the UN, bureaucratic obstacles in Ankara and security risks in northern Syria.

These dangers spill over into Turkey, too. On February 11, a car bomb some blame on the Damascus regime killed 10 Syrians and four Turkish people at the Turkish border post of Cilvegözü. On April 30, Syrian warplanes bombed just inside the border, killing five Syrians and wounding at least 54 others who were brought to Turkish hospitals. Then, on May 2, Syrians trying to cross into Turkey rioted at the Akçakale crossing, shooting and setting fire to guard booths. A Turkish border guard was killed in that incident, and 12 other people were wounded.

In short, two years of hoping for a quick resolution of the crisis have led to an unsustainable dead end for Ankara. The time has come to start planning for multi-year burden during which the conflict is stalemated, the Syrian state has failed and a humanitarian disaster is reaching proportions probably not seen since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

For Turkey, this means some policies should change. These include its strategy for dealing with Syrian refugees within its borders, its approach to humanitarian aid across the border in northern Syria, and dealing with its image over its southern borders as an increasingly partisan Sunni Muslim actor.


The humanitarian question is the most urgent. Both Turkish and UNHCR official figures count 300,000 refugees, but privately officials say the real figure is 450,000—a discrepancy that arises because the government does not want to worry the two-thirds of its population that does not support the government’s Syria policy. Turkish state disaster agencies have spent USD 750 million and government ministries more than USD 250 million looking after the newcomers, most of it just in the past year. The chairman of the Prime Ministry’s Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate, Fuat Oktay, said at a press conference in March that the total cost may already have exceeded USD 1.5 billion.

About 200,000 of the refugees in Turkey live in seventeen camps and container cities in provinces close to the Syrian border. The organization of most of these camps is immaculate—many tents have air conditioning, schools function, and in front of one tent a family has installed a Syrian-style courtyard with a dovecote and fountain. This generous Turkish approach amounts to a sort of indirect assistance to the Syrian armed opposition, whose families live there and are visited by unarmed off-duty fighters on leave from their combat units.

The rest of the refugees live all over Turkey. Some are running out of money, or are dependent on remittances from relatives in the large Syrian diaspora. Turkey is now offering them free health care and education, and a growing number are finding informal work. (Most are restricted from taking formal work due to the difficulty and expense of obtaining work permits.) If—as the UN predicts—the number of refugees doubles or triples in the next year, there could be grave financial consequences and new strains on Turkish cities.

To access much of the international donor funds and aid already available, Turkey must open up more to international agencies and NGOs. Extraordinarily, by April 2013, only three had been registered to work in Turkey. Only they can operate openly, with bank accounts, employees and legal status. Seventeen others have “green lights” to operate, and perhaps as many again are working informally, but lack of legal status greatly limits their work and indeed the Turkish government’s ability to monitor their activities.

Turkish NGOs also need to do more to get registered by the EU—admittedly a lengthy process—in order to be able to receive money directly. At the same time, international NGOs should recognize that Turkey is a state with well-established methods, and that Turkish institutions like the Red Crescent and NGOs like the faith-based İnsani Yardım Vakfı (IHH) are experienced and capable of effectively addressing Syrian refugees’ mass needs.

Cross-border aid

Anxious to limit the influx of refugees and the corresponding mounting costs, Turkey would like to solve as much of the problem as possible inside Syria. To start, it has put stricter rules in place to slow the flow of refugees into Turkey. Instead of absorbing quite as many refugees, Turkey now allows Syrian merchants to buy and trade goods across the frontier, has pushed for UN or international endorsement of allowing aid across sovereign borders. Most importantly, it has developed a system of “zero point” deliveries of aid to several border points, in which Turkish trucks drive up to designated areas at crossing points held by the opposition and transfer their loads to Syrian transport.

Unfortunately, full cross-border aid is unlikely soon, despite strong support by major international aid NGOs: the Damascus regime refuses to allow it. But there are signs that the idea is gaining momentum despite Russian and Chinese reluctance. After the UN’s humanitarian aid chief, Valerie Amos, spelled out the enormous difficulties of supplying aid through Damascus, an April 18 UN Security Council presidential statement endorsed aid by all “effective” routes, including across borders.

Meanwhile Turkey has encouraged the delivery of flour, bread and other goods by its “zero point” system. At current levels, this system is not meeting the needs of the estimated three million Syrians who live in rebel-held zones, let alone many more millions in government-run areas. Security remains a major concern. The Damascus regime has repeatedly attacked civilian targets like bakeries, hospitals and public gatherings. In rebel-held areas, there has been kidnapping, seizure of aid by criminal groups, and use of aid as a way of increasing influence.

But after two years of turmoil, there are local communities and Syrian NGOs who, according to international aid workers in northern Syria, are able to document by video and track record their effective use of assistance reasonably well. To help in Syria over the medium term, Turkey and the international community must find ways to massively scale up the ‘zero point’ system.

The Sunni Muslim factor

Finally, Turkey needs to address the perception in the Arab world and in Syria that it is an increasingly partisan actor—not just the idea that it has become a champion of Sunni Muslims, but also that it is taking sides with the pro-Muslim Brotherhood faction within the Sunni Arab world. Arab and Iranian commentators are increasingly hostile to what they see as a Turkish attempt to recreate the Ottoman Empire. Domestically, too, Ankara’s new emphasis on Sunni alliances and preferences is reawakening tensions with the 10% of Turkey’s population who are heterodox Alevis, who are spiritual cousins with Bashar Al-Assad’s Alawite sect. Turkey’s was an enthusiastic supporter of the Bashar Al-Assad regime in the 2000s and has since switched to backing the armed opposition attempting to oust Assad, demonstrating to all in the region that Ankara alone has neither the military nor diplomatic clout to force any outcome, even if it will almost certainly have to be part of any resolution of the crisis.

Turkey is partially making up for this by securing its position along its southern borders. Ankara’s offers of oil, gas and partial security guarantees are bolstering northern Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government. It is also improving its position in northern Syria— where one of the strongest militias is a sister party of Turkey’s insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—by making a substantial domestic effort to address the grievances of its 15–20% Kurdish-speaking population and to end the three-decade-old PKK insurgency. This will not only go a long way to strengthening Turkey at home, but will also improve its relationship with the Syria that emerges from the crisis.

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