The Rising Costs of Turkey’s Syrian Quagmire
The Rising Costs of Turkey’s Syrian Quagmire
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Turkey's Syrian Quagmire
Turkey's Syrian Quagmire
Report / Europe & Central Asia 4 minutes

The Rising Costs of Turkey’s Syrian Quagmire

Continuous refugee flows from Syria are stretching Turkey’s capacities and necessitate long-term adjustments as well as stronger international engagement to better share the burden.

Executive Summary

The Syrian crisis crashed onto neighbouring Turkey’s doorstep three years ago and the humanitarian, policy and security costs continue to rise. After at least 720,000 Syrian refugees, over 75 Turkish fatalities and nearly $3 billion in spending, frustration and fatigue are kicking in. Turkey’s humanitarian outreach, while morally right and in line with international principles, remains an emergency response. Ankara needs to find a sustainable, long-term arrangement with the international community to care for the Syrians who arrive daily. While spared the worst of the sectarian and military spillover, Turks are reminded of the security risks by deadly car bombs and armed incidents on their territory, especially as northern Syria remains an unpredictable no-man’s-land. The conflict was not of its making, but Ankara has in effect become a party. Unable to make a real difference by itself, it should focus on protecting its border and citizens, invigorate recent efforts to move back from the ruling party’s Sunni Muslim-oriented foreign policy to one of sectarian neutrality and publicly promote a compromise political solution in Syria.

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Turkey needs to ensure that refugees fleeing Syria are able to access safe territory and receive international protection within a legal framework, but it should not have to pay for this alone. Turks have accepted the Syrians on behalf of the wider international community, which has a responsibility to share more of the growing burden. The high costs of building and maintaining shelters mean most newcomers end up outside the camps: the official number of such urban Syrians is around 500,000, but in reality it could be twice that. The influx puts pressure on local infrastructures and creates social tensions. As resources and patience stretch thin and security incidents proliferate, Turkey’s open door policy has its limits. Even with stricter border controls, however, Syrians continue to arrive, often illegally.

Ankara needs a comprehensive accommodation strategy, including giving refugees the option to integrate into Turkish society through jobs, access to social care, language training and education. This requires, first, a more comprehensive legal framework that expands the April 2013 law on foreigners and immigration. Donors can help logistically and financially by sharing expertise on and providing funding for mutually-agreed housing schemes for Syrians inside Turkey.

Turkey has been the main lifeline to northern Syria since 2012, with many countries and international and local organisations providing critical aid to at least 100,000 Syrians via a de facto humanitarian safe zone. It should continue cooperating to the full extent with international organisations to deliver humanitarian assistance. From Turkey’s perspective, taking care of the displaced inside Syria limits any new influx. But plans to address needs at makeshift camps for the foreseeable future overlook the dangers to both Syrians and aid workers as the environment becomes increasingly volatile. As Crisis Group argued in April 2013, the best option is to provide a way out of Syria for all civilians who want to leave their war-torn country.

Turkey may be bigger, stronger and richer than Syria’s other neighbours, but it still needs to feel supported so that it will continue to keep its borders open to refugees. In the past year and a half, Ankara has opened up to international assistance and registered more international humanitarian NGOs to work on the crisis. Nevertheless, residual fear of outsiders and bureaucratic obstacles still block Turkey from fully benefiting from available international resources. Third parties have contributed less than one tenth of what it has spent on the crisis so far. Donors should no longer hide behind Ankara’s initial rejection of foreign aid, or the fact that it handles the situation more effectively than Jordan or Lebanon.

While Turkey has successfully contained internal sectarian unrest, its Syria policy is highly unpopular domestically, not least with its large Alevi and Kurdish popu­lations. Feeling betrayed by Western failure to live up to promises of intervention or more support, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has re­calibrated its foreign policy in the past year. Its narrative has changed to include jihadi elements of the militant opposition in the growing list of security threats from Syria, along with the regime and its agents. In 2013, it reversed its all-out objection to engaging the Syrian Kurds’ Democratic Union Party (PYD), linked to Turkey’s insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and in March 2014, it let UN aid convoys cross into PYD-controlled areas when Syria finally opened one border crossing for UN humanitarian aid. In the bigger picture, Turkey wants to avoid prolonged military entanglement, but violent border clashes and occasional aerial confrontations with the regime increase risks of an escalation. Even so, extensive Turkish military intervention is unlikely without at least an international mandate and backing.

The AKP leadership’s resolve to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gone stays strong, as does its support for the mainstream Syrian opposition. It hosts rebels and their families in well-built refugee camps, allows political and military opposition bodies to convene on its soil and gives logistical and material assistance. But Turkey has never been a main backer of the militant opposition inside Syria, and Gulf actors have gained more political influence. Still, involvement with the opposition’s main political body, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, helped garner support for Geneva II peace talks and ensure a degree of Kurdish representation. Turkey should use its leverage as a transit ground for supplies to rebel groups in northern Syria to encourage their compliance with international humanitarian law and non-sectarian practices. By maintaining open communication with regional counterparts, including Iran, Turkey should work reciprocally to de-escalate foreign involvement in the Syrian war and build an environment more conducive to peace.

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