Tag: turkey

Economics of the Syrian Refugee Crisis

The Syrian Civil War has produced about 5.8 million Syrians seeking refuge or asylum elsewhere–a scale of population displacement unseen since World War II. Although the flow into Europe dominates the news, most of the registered Syrian refugees remain in the Middle East. Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan are the main recipients of the immigration wave, receiving roughly 1.1 million, 2.7 million, and 640,000 Syrians, respectively. The Gulf States are hosting about 1.2 million Syrians on work visas but they are not legally considered refugees or asylum seekers because those nations are not signatories to the UNHCR commission that created the modern refugee system. Regardless, the humanitarian benefit of Syrians working and residing there is tremendous.

The movement of so many Syrians over such a short period of time should result in significant economic and fiscal effects in their destination countries. Below is a summary of recent economic research on how the Syrians have affected the economies and budgets for Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Europe. 


Syrian refugees are 24 percent of Lebanon’s population–the highest Syrian refugee to population ratio in the world. However, neither the Lebanese government nor the United Nations has established official refugee camps in the country and registration of new Syrian refugees stopped in May 2015. International NGOs provide humanitarian aid that benefits over 126,000 destitute Syrians, but significant funding shortages have left some Syrians living on less than half a dollar per day. To more efficiently provide aid, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has divided the country into four areas: Mount Lebanon and Beirut, North Lebanon, Bekaa Valley, and South Lebanon. Most refugees have settled in the underdeveloped areas of the Bekaa Valley and North Lebanon because the Lebanese in these areas share many family ties with Syrians. Locals in these areas are struggling to accommodate Syrian refugees despite the family ties.

Many Syrians, especially those with more wealth and greater skills, are responding to the poor economic conditions in North Lebanon and Bekaa by moving to South Lebanon and Beirut where there are more job opportunities, higher wages, cheaper rents, and safer communities. Syrian entrepreneurs are also welcomed in these regions of the country.

Can a Syrian Ceasefire Hold?

Yesterday’s agreement for a cessation of hostilities in the Syrian conflict – including provision for humanitarian aid deliveries – is welcome news from an increasingly bloody conflict. The deal has been greeted with justifiable skepticism from observers around the world, who note the many and varied problems inherent in the proposed agreement. This is not a formal ceasefire, and it faces long odds of successful implementation. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth supporting to the fullest extent possible. If it does succeed in reducing violence inside Syria, it just might act as the necessary first step to a more comprehensive ceasefire and transition agreement.

One could hardly have imagined a more ill-omened location for the agreement, which was announced yesterday on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. The agreement itself calls for a cessation of hostilities inside Syria – though it does not apply to either of Syria’s main extremist groups, ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra – and for the rapid provision of access for the delivery of humanitarian supplies to Syria’s besieged cities. It is not an immediate deal: parties have one week before it takes effect. Yet if the deal sticks, it will help to stem the flow of Syrian refugees and provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance.

Mission Creep in Syria

This week, the United States and Turkey agreed on a deal to expand cooperation in the fight against ISIS, in part through the creation of an ‘ISIS-free zone’ in Northern Syria. The scope of the agreement is unclear, not least because Turkish officials are hailing it as a ‘safe zone’ and a possible area for refugees, while U.S. officials deny most of these claims. U.S. officials are also explicit that the agreement will not include a no-fly zone, long a demand of U.S. allies in the region.

But what’s not in doubt is that the United States and Turkey plan to use airstrikes to clear ISIS fighters from a 68-mile zone near the Turkish border. The zone would then be run by moderate Syrian rebels, although exactly who this would include remains undefined.

Over at the Guardian today, I have a piece talking about the many problems with this plan, in particular the fact that it substantially increases the likelihood of escalation and mission creep in Syria:

“The ambiguity around the ‘Isis-free zone’ creates a clear risk of escalation. It’s unclear, for example, whether groups engaged in fighting the regime directly will be allowed to enter the zone and train there, or only those US-trained and equipped rebels focused on Isis. US officials have been keen to note that Assad’s forces have thus far yielded to American airstrikes elsewhere in Syria – choosing not to use their air defense system and avoiding areas the US is targeting - but that is no guarantee that they would refrain from attacking opposition groups sheltering inside a safe zone.”

The plan is just another step in the current U.S. approach to Syria, which has been haphazard and ill-thought out. The United States is engaged in fighting ISIS while most fighters on the ground want to fight the Assad regime, a key reason for the abysmal recruitment record of the U.S. military’s new train-and-equip programs in Syria. Increased U.S. involvement in Syria risks our involvement in another costly, open-ended civil war.

A Covert Escalation of U.S. Involvement in Syria?

Officials often try to implement dubious or controversial initiatives over weekends or holidays, when journalists and the public are likely to be less vigilant than normal.  Three-day holiday weekends are especially popular candidates for such maneuvers.  It is perhaps unsurprising that there were indications of a significant change regarding U.S. policy toward Syria on the Sunday before Memorial Day.  Turkey’s foreign minister announced that his country and the United States had agreed in principle to provide air protection for some 15,000 Syrian rebels being trained by Ankara and Washington once those insurgents re-enter Syrian territory.

Granted, an agreement in principle could break down over the details of implementation, and the Obama administration has yet to confirm the Turkish account.  Nevertheless, there are hints of an impending escalation of U.S. involvement in Syria’s murky civil war.  A lobbying effort by proponents of U.S. aid to factions trying to unseat dictator Bashar al-Assad is definitely taking place.  The number two Democrat in the Senate, Dick Durban of Illinois, has openly endorsed establishing and protecting “safe zones” for insurgents, and he is hardly alone.  

In essence, the United States and its Turkish ally appear to be contemplating the imposition of a “no fly” zone over northern Syria to prevent Assad’s forces from suppressing the rebel fighters.  It is pertinent to recall that a fateful step in America’s disastrous entanglement in Iraq was the creation of such zones against Saddam Hussein to protect Kurdish and Shiite insurgents in the 1990s.  A similar measure should not be undertaken lightly in Syria.

Obama’s Hypocrisy Regarding Forcible Border Changes

In a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Obama stated that he was considering sending weapons to the government of Ukraine.  Noting that Russia had already annexed Crimea and was now backing separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, the president warned that “the West cannot stand and simply allow the borders of Europe to be redrawn at the barrel of a gun.”

Such sentiments might have more credibility if the Western powers, including the United States, had not engaged in similar conduct.  But Washington and its NATO allies have indeed redrawn borders, including borders in Europe, through military force.  Two incidents are especially relevant.  Turkey, a leading member of NATO, invaded Cyprus in 1974 and amputated some 37 percent of that country’s territory.  Turkish forces ethnically cleansed the area of its Greek Cypriot inhabitants and, in the years that followed, desecrated a large number of Greek historical and religious sites.

Ankara subsequently established a client state, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the occupied territories.  Turkey has steadfastly refused to atone for its illegal invasion and occupation, much less disgorge the land that it conquered.  Yet except for some token economic sanctions imposed shortly after the invasion, which were soon lifted, Washington has never even condemned the aggression that its NATO ally committed. 

One might assume that it would be awkward for U.S. leaders to excoriate Vladimir Putin’s regime for annexing Crimea or setting up puppet states in the occupied Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (which Moscow did after a short, nasty war in 2008) when a NATO member is guilty of similar behavior.  But such flagrant inconsistency has apparently caused American officials little difficulty.

Update: Police Turn Water Cannons on Taksim Protesters

Looks like I spoke too soon: the six days of relative quiet in Taksim were broken today, Saturday, as Turkish riot police turned water cannons on thousands of protesters. Police used water cannons and teargas to break up similar protests in Ankara. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains defiant, blaming foreigners and the “interest rate lobby” for stirring up trouble, and undermining Turkey’s economy. Such lines appeal to Erdogan and the AKP’s base, but is likely to only anger the protesters even more.

Looks like standing man/woman won’t be enough to convince Erdogan to moderate his tone. Concessions to his opponents seem even less likely. It could be a long, hot summer in Turkey.

Business Is Booming in Gaziantep, but There Are Other Worries

Gaziantep, Turkey – Late yesterday, we traveled from Ankara to Gaziantep, a manufacturing and industrial city in southeastern Turkey, about 30 miles north of the Syrian border. 

It was an eye-opening experience. The city itself is modern and booming. It has several major universities, and is a central hub for commerce and trade. New construction was visible everywhere. The airport was modest, but the flights to and from Gaziantep were full. 
The best parts of the trip were the meetings with individual Turks, including business people, students, and teachers. Several families welcomed us into their homes over traditional meals. 
The cut off of trade and economic ties since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war has affected some businesses, but most appear to have adapted by finding new markets and new suppliers. Indeed, I and other of my traveling companions were surprised that there were not more outward signs of the brutal war that has raged for over two years, in this city less than 60 miles from Aleppo.
The city of Gaziantep, and the surrounding province of the same name, have welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria. Syrian refugees are allowed to work. This is a point of pride among the people with whom I met, even though they recognize the hardship that it causes for some already here. They would like more help for refugees from the international community.
They also would like leading powers, especially the United States, but also Russia and China, to play a role in resolving the crisis. But that end state could not include Bashar Assad. The sense was that he had to go. One gentleman told me that 40 years of rule by the Assad family was enough. And besides, “he has killed his own people,” he said, “How can he be allowed to remain?” When I explained to another gentleman that it might be hard to find someone who can fill the vacuum left behind, he replied that a Sunni Arab could do the job. Most Syrians are Sunnis, thus they would rally behind a Sunni. And other minorities will then come along. [I’m pretty sure that an Alawite would disagree, and I suspect many Christians would as well.]
These people were generally Erdogan supporters. Many worried about how the recent protests were undermining Turkey’s image abroad. They were concerned about the impact on tourism, and on the wider economy. Some, echoing the AKP’s standard line, saw evidence of nefarious foreign plots behind the protesters. Still others felt that the protests started out as a spontaneous expression of concern about Gezi Park, but had been hijacked by interest groups within Turkey, including far left parties, and vehement Erdogan opponents.
It is obvious that Erdogan taps into the sentiment among some of the people with whom I met–and arguably many Turks, given that he is the first Prime Minister to have been elected three times–that one shouldn’t be officially ostracized for practicing religion. And it certainly shouldn’t be a crime. In that respect, some Turks believe that the Kemalists went too far. They didn’t merely set up a secular state. They were anti-religious, sneering and dismissive of believers.
Others are enthused about the economic revival that has occurred under his watch. One of my hosts explained that many of the protesters were too young to remember the poor economic times, including a financial crisis in 2000-2001 that paved the way for the AKP’s rise to power. The implication was that if Erdogan and the AKP were to lose political control to the opposition, the economy would suffer. 
But there is an unsettling authoritarian streak in Erdogan’s behavior. Even strong AKP supporters worry that the party’s identity has become too wrapped up around Erdogan. The party lacks a firm institutional base, and too few voices from within the AKP who can or will challenge Erdogan, or at least help him moderate his ways. He has surrounded himself with sycophants and yes men, a closeted bubble increasingly isolated from reality. They say that in a democracy, the winners of elections have a mandate to govern. They are confident that the majorities that elected them, and returned them to power, are still with them. 
Are they? What is going on politically? Has Erdogan overreached? And will the opposition use the recent protests and a growing sense of frustration and unease among some Turks to cut into his power, beginning perhaps with next year’s municipal elections? I’ll write more about that tomorrow.