Turkey has been forcing people for almost a year now to trade using its local currency in different Syrian regions that lie on its southern border and are under its army’s control. Likewise, these areas are under the control of Turkish-backed armed militias that oppose the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, who won a fourth term this May in an election that sparked criticism and widespread international rejection.
Trading in the Turkish lira has officially begun since June 2020 in at least seven Syrian regions, namely Idlib, Afrin, Azaz, al-Bab, Jarablus, Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain. These towns and cities are in northwestern and southwestern Syria and have been run by Ankara since the attacks that were launched by the Turkish Army within Syrian territory between 2016 and 2019, alongside anti-Assad Syrian armed groups.
“By enforcing people to use its currency in these regions, Ankara is seeking to annex them to the Turkish economy,” said researcher and political analyst specializing in Turkish affairs, Sarkis Kassargian.
“The goal behind this step is primarily political,” he stressed, noting that things won’t stop at linking these Syrian cities to the Turkish economy, but rather to its political and social levels in the future.
In his comments to Majalla, Kassargian said residents of these Syrian regions might eventually find that their very existence and daily needs are dependent on the regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “This means that this economic subordination is significant, particularly during any upcoming election or any political settlement involving these regions, especially that the locals themselves might endorse Erdogan,” he explained. This might mean becoming part of Turkey due to their concerns about their livelihoods. “This precisely is the second goal behind the current Turkish regime’s imposition of its currency in these areas,” Kassargian stressed.
Experts on Turkish affairs did not rule out a popular referendum soon in order to annex all these cities and towns to Turkey, in reference to raising its flags and the pictures of its president on Syrian soil and imposing its local currency in different areas it runs.
Turkey considers these areas part of its provinces, whereas the government in Damascus and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria consider them “occupied” cities, experts noted.
In the last few years, Ankara inaugurated branches of Turkish universities in those Syrian cities, in addition to branches of its post offices. The Turkish language is now considered official in schools, institutes and universities in cities that were occupied by the Turkish army years ago.
Kassargian further noted that Turkey benefited greatly after imposing its currency in Syria. Through this step, Erdogan was able to requisition all the hard foreign currency entering these areas in huge amounts from states and governments supporting the armed opposition groups. Erdogan replaced them with Turkish currency in densely populated regions, which raised the demand for the Turkish lira, causing it to deprecate in value only “gradually and slowly.”
“Erdogan imposed the Turkish lira in those Syrian regions during a critical period for the Turkish economy,” Kassargian said. “This is why he seized all forms of hard currency that the opposition groups had accumulated out of foreign financing, looting and plundering of public and service facilities as well as factories, railways and oil, and the smuggling of both people and antiquities.” In doing so, he forced all the residents of those areas to use his country’s currency, thereby gaining a supply of foreign currency and creating a new market for the Turkish lira, he explained.
The political analyst affirmed that the Syrian economy has suffered a great loss due to the trading in Turkish lira on Syrian soil. “Syria’s economic losses are reflected in Turkey’s economic gains,” he stated.
“Syria first lost the available foreign currency, and a certain mass of the population was no longer in need of its currency, which decreased the demand and deprecated its value more quickly at the economic level.”
“Politically, Syria lost a mass of its citizens, and their livelihoods became linked to the Turkish economic system,” he added.
For over a year, it has been mandatory to use Turkish currency in the Syrian areas that fall under the Turkish army’s control. Before that, people had a choice due to the instability of the Syrian lira against the foreign currency.
Last year, Turkey introduced huge amounts of Turkish paper notes and coins of different value primarily to Idlib, which is under the control of Tahrir al-Sham, al-Qaeda’s arm in Syria, as well as to Afrin, Azaz and other Syrian cities that are controlled by the Ankara-backed so-called “Syrian National Army.”
As the Turkish lira circulated instead of the Syrian lira, the areas controlled by Tahrir al-Sham and other Ankara-backed militias officially became part of Turkey, featuring Turkish facilities, hospitals and shipping companies. In addition, these areas became beneficiaries of a plan supplying Turkish electricity, not to mention the Turkish army’s extensive presence there.
In addition to daily dealings in Turkish currency, Ankara also pays in Turkish lira all the fighters and civilians who work in Turkish-backed administrative and military institutions.
The Turkish army controls about 50 percent of Syria, where about four million Syrian civilians live, according to data published by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Turkey launched three attacks on Syrian territory under the pretext of protecting its “national security,” which mostly meant its refusal of the presence of armed Syrian Kurdish forces on its southern border.
Ankara mainly targeted the Syrian Democratic Forces whose main component is the Kurdish People’s Protection Units. These units are pluralistic forces comprising Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, and Armenians, among others.
The military operations in Kurdish-majority Afrin have caused hundreds of thousands of Kurds to flee the area. Most of them were unable to return to their homes as a result of what the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria described as the “ethnic cleansing of Kurds and religious and ethnic minorities” in the city and in other Syrian cities that fall under Ankara’s control.
Jiwan Soz is a researcher and journalist who focuses on Turkish affairs and minorities in the Middle East. He is also a member of Syndicat National des Journalistes (National Syndicate of Journalists [SNJ]).