Recent news clips have been filled with stories explaining images like the one above: Turkish troops looking across the border at the brutal fighting mere kilometers away. Some in the international community saw this as an opportunity to call for increased Turkish involvement in the Syrian conflict. But often absent from this chorus of voices were opinions on Turkey’s practical capability to assist. A recent panel discussion at the Turkish Policy Center yielded an interesting perspective on the matter. Dr. Sebnem Kalemli-Ozcan, an International Monetary Fund (IMF) veteran and economics professor with the University of Maryland, spelled out worrying trends in Turkey’s economy, posing the question: how much can Turkey afford to help?
The pressure for outside intervention is undeniable. The conflict in Syria has seen some of the most ruthless fighting in modern history. Civilians and combatants alike are given no quarter. Homes become frontlines and hospitals full of wounded fighters are favored targets. The Islamic State (IS) imposes harsh punishment against anyone opposing their medieval interpretation of Sharia Law, while government loyalists brutally suppress political dissent through a campaign of fear and destruction. Three million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries, and over half sought refuge in neighboring Turkey.
Turkey has invested a lot in humanitarian aid. Turkey is obligated to care for refugees under both the 1951 Refugee Convention and the Convention Against Torture. These treaties promote an international principle called non-refoulement, which prevents States from expelling refugees back to their home countries if they would face physical harm. The Refugee Convention specifically points to religious or political persecution a source of such potential harm. The Convention Against Torture further protects refugees from being expelled if they could face torture or if they may be subject to cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment. With the prevalence of sexual violence, summary executions, and mutilations carried out on all sides, these treaties are a vital lifeline for those caught in the brutal conflict.
Meeting these international obligations have come at a great cost. In concrete numbers, the Turkish government has spent 4.5 billion dollars in direct aid to shelter refugees. This includes construction of 22 refugee camps, and aid to the thousands of overflowing refugees that settle in its towns and cities. Indirectly, the influx of refugees has greatly increased Turkey’s unemployment rate. This problem is exacerbated by an inflexible Turkish labor market, which lacks adult education and skills retraining programs necessary for job creation. New Syrian residents are also permanently changing the demographics of Southern Turkey, leading to increased sectarian tensions.
This comes at a time when Turkey is hardly able to shoulder these burdens. Having tripled its per capita income in the last decade, Turkey’s economic growth is faltering. Dr. Kalemli-Ozcan points to the expiration of an effective IMF financial reform program, and diminishing foreign investments which had once preferred the comparably stable Turkish economy in the wake of an American recession as factors. Turkey’s economic growth now lags far behind typical emerging economics such as China. Unemployment teeters at 10 percent, and the Turkish Lira is depreciating in value at near double digit rates. Turkey must also borrow 40% of its GDP in order to sustain its current spending, and runs a trade deficit—spending more on imports than it is able to recuperate on exports. All these factors, combined with the recent domestic unrest, and destabilizing effect of the nearby conflict creates an unpredictable situation unattractive to much needed investors.
For these reasons, Turkish involvement beyond humanitarian aid is economically impractical. Turkey is a political and economic power in the region, a member of NATO, and fields a modern military. But the excess spending required to conduct operations in Syria could very well expedite a looming economic crisis in the country. It is neither in Turkey’s interest to strain an already fragile economy, nor that of its Western Allies to destabilize one of the few stable democracies in the Middle East.