the Rising Costs of Turkey’s Syrian Quagmire

the Rising Costs of Turkey's Syrian Quagmire

Europe Report N°230 30 Apr 2014, crisisgroup

Executive Summary

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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.


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.


Pending a settlement to the conflict, to ensure the well-being of Syrians in Turkey and provide a measure of more effective assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs) inside Syria


To the government of Turkey and the donor community:

1. Initiate a housing scheme that combines conditional cash or housing vouchers to provide rent subsidies for Syrians, paid for entirely by donors, and a simultaneous Turkish government project to expand housing supply, particularly in areas receiving large Syrian influxes.


To the government of Turkey:

2. Further build on the April 2013 law on foreigners and immigration, giving priority to a temporary protection regulation to fill the gaps in Syrians’ social rights and community support, and in particular:


a) agree on criteria for supplying all Syrian refugees with uniform identity papers, work permits and professional qualification certificates;

b) provide as many places as possible for young Syrian children in existing Turkish schools; open up to donors to build schools; and offer students intensive Turkish classes to speed integration;

c) formalise Turkish language classes, internationally-valid diplomas and official supervision for informal, Syrian-run Arabic-language schools.

3. Expedite work with international organisations to assess the needs of non-camp Syrians, including full registration, paperwork for vehicles, longer-term assistance programs, legal aid, special attention to vulnerable groups and action to prevent forced marriages and violence against women.

4. Engage in more non-state outsourcing to cover the rising costs of services provided in existing camps and also to build new temporary shelters or expand existing ones, if needed.

5. Continue to facilitate international non-governmental organisation (INGO) registrations, including fast-tracking residence and work permits for humanitarian staff, and provide them a free operating environment with clear guidelines.

6. Designate one central coordinator for INGO matters, with branch offices that can give support in English in the border provinces where most operate.

7. Ensure no forced returns to Syria.

8. Continue to facilitate aid from international organisations and agencies to northern Syria, through the existing “zero point” assistance system as well as across the border wherever possible.

9. Reduce the risk of the international humanitarian assistance effort being targeted by the Syrian regime or other hostile groups by clearly separating routes used for humanitarian aid to IDPs in northern Syria from those used to transport material support to rebel groups.


To the European Union (EU), its member states, multilateral aid groups and the wider international community:

10. Help develop local infrastructure, including health-care and education facilities, water, sanitation and solid-waste management, in areas that receive a large influx of Syrians.

11. Offer temporary protection in Europe to more Syrian refugees and allow family reunifications.

12. Uphold the principle of non-refoulement (non-expulsion) of Syrian refugees, however they may have arrived, including not transferring them back to neighbouring countries like Turkey.

13. Continue to provide humanitarian aid to all parts of Syria where roads are secure, including across the Turkey-Syria border, and push for UN approval of the widest possible cross-border humanitarian operation.


To keep Turkish domestic tensions in check


To the government of Turkey:

14. Disseminate information better to both Syrian refugees and local Turkish populations to dispel rumours and head off internal conflicts.

15. Reactivate plans for a comprehensive reform package to address the main grievances of Turkey’s Alevi population, including official recognition of their houses of worship.

16. Refrain from language that may be perceived, even implicitly, as implicating Turkey’s Alevi community in violent incidents related to Syria war spillover.


To facilitate a solution in Syria


To the government of Turkey:

17. Continue directly engaging Iran and other regional actors to find a political solution in Syria, including encouraging reciprocal steps from regional counterparts to achieve a mutual reduction in their involvement in the conflict and eventually end proxy warfare.

18. Invigorate recent efforts to demonstrate greater sectarian and ethnic neutrality in foreign policy.

19. Show zero tolerance to border breaches by jihadi elements, whether from or into Syria.


20. Coordinate with regional counterparts to give any support for opposition groups inside Syria only to those that comply with international humanitarian and human rights law, including granting safe access to people in need and demonstrating non-sectarian behaviour.


Gaziantep/Istanbul/Brussels, 30 April 2014