Currency crisis threatens Turkey’s strategy in Syria
With the economic turmoil rocking the Turkish economy, the question arises as to whether Ankara can maintain its grip on areas controlled by the Syrian opposition where the Turkish lira is the de facto currency.
The collapse of the pound has deepened internal rivalries over financial resources between armed opposition factions and fueled public discontent in opposition-held areas. The unrest threatens to erode control of Turkish-backed militias in al-Bab, Jarablus, Azaz, Afrin, Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain.
Likewise, the deteriorating economic situation could undermine the authority of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the dominant jihadist group in Idlib, where Turkey’s heavy military deployments along the strategic M4 highway serve as a shield. against Syrian government forces.
The HTS appears to regret its decision to use the Turkish lira in the region under its control as the prices of oil and some basic foodstuffs, including bread, have soared. Price of a loaf double to 5 lire despite the commitment of HTS chief Abu Mohammad al-Jolani to subsidize bread. Watad Petroleum, an oil company linked to HTS, meanwhile, indexed its prices to the US dollar, converting the lira.
In areas of Turkish-backed opposition, internal divisions between factions under the Syrian National Army (SNA) banner are escalating amid financial turmoil. Internal income rivalry is not new, but it may have reached a point where Ankara’s grip on these groups is defied.
Continuing disagreements between Turkey-backed Ahrar al-Sharqiyah and the Al Mutasim brigade led to the end of cooperation between the two groups. Al Mutasim announcement on December 17, that it would no longer work with the former in the Euphrates Shield, Peace Spring and Olivier Branch areas.
The Biden administration imposed sanctions on Ahrar al-Sharqiyah in July, accusing the group of serious human rights violations against civilians. The group, one of the notable components of the SNA with some 2,500 fighters, is said to be made up of opposition factions based in Deir ez-Zor. Ahrar al-Sharqiyah frantic actions and attempts to marginalize other groups with the aim of monopolizing power especially in Ras al-Ain and Tel Abyad threaten other armed groups supported by the Turkish army.
Amid the unrest, some even claimed that Ankara had lost control over the armed groups due to financial difficulties exacerbated by the war against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. This, in turn, would have widened cracks between factions supported by Turkey. Fighters in these groups receive monthly payments in Turkish Lira valued at $ 70 to $ 100 depending on the region. Their purchasing power was considerably reduced by the fall of the lira.
The armed groups were awaiting a new Turkish incursion against the Kurdish Syrian groups. But Ankara’s suspension of the plan in the absence of Russian and US green lights has shattered prospects for new sources of income and spoils of war.
Afrin, which was captured in 2018, has become a major source of income for groups supported by Turkey. In addition to the houses evacuated by the Kurds fleeing the Turkish advances, olive groves, olive oil and soap factories as well as historical artefacts have been the target of looting campaigns organized for four years. More recently, Ras al-Ain and Tel Abyad who were captured in October 2019 have witnessed similar campaigns.
The rivalry for income and the ensuing crime escalated again in Afrin despite assurances from Turkish authorities that there was no tolerance for looting and pillaging. Mohammed Jassem, head of the Sultan Suleiman Shah brigade with which Ankara closely cooperated in the transfer of militias to Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, has long been accused of extortion, murder, kidnapping, torture, looting , theft, drug and arms trafficking.
Some rivals affiliated with Suleiman Shah’s SNA recently threatens Jassem, also known as Abu Amsha, to force him to hand over his brothers to the authorities for an investigation into various crimes. Tensions between the two camps escalated dangerously after Abu Amsha refused the request and the two sides deployed to the northwestern town of Sheikh al-Hadid, near Afrin. Amsha was forced to hand over a relative to the authorities to avoid large-scale armed clashes.
A series of videos, which were allegedly filmed by relatives of Abu Amsha and implicating the commander in drug and arms trafficking, revealed the extent of internal strife within Suleiman Shah.
In response to the claims, a commander of the Azm operations room, a joint operations center formed by various opposition factions, said on December 20 that opposition forces have “great responsibility to save our revolution from the evil of criminals and looters, ”referring to Abu Amsha. Following the announcement, forces affiliated with the operations center raided a drug den reportedly run by an Abu Amsha ally. The reaction of Turkish intelligence services, which reportedly collaborated with Abu Amsha to transfer Syrian militias to foreign war zones, to this rivalry remains unknown. The Azm Joint Operations Center was formed by Turkish-led efforts in July, but soon plagued by internal disagreements.
One of the main factions in the center, the Sultan Murad Brigade, is known to have strong ties to Ankara. Sulaiman Shah, led by Abu Amsha, had also joined the center, but then withdrew, announcing that he was joining a “Syrian Liberation Front”. Turkish intelligence is also said to have played a role in this alliance.
Although Ahrar al-Sharqiyah is the most notorious, the criminal records of other groups are no different. Armed groups including Sultan Murad, Al-Hamza Division, Faylaq al-Sham and Jabhat al-Shamiyah have also been accused to ravage olive groves, loot plants and loot historic sites. These actions, in turn, further fuel public discontent.
The reduction in financial resources amid the unrest would likely exacerbate the rivalry, as well as the discontent of residents who live in areas controlled by the opposition, further complicating Ankara’s efforts to command and control armed groups. Escalating internal clashes, especially in Afrin, could lead to a scenario similar to that which occurred in Idlib, where the radical HTS crushed all other groups, announcing its self-proclaimed government.