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PoliticsMiddle East

Idlib: Fear of a new currency collapse

December 1, 2021

The Turkish lira is in free fall — with devastating consequences for people in the Syrian region of Idlib. 46-year-old Khadija needs two jobs to provide for her family.

People in the Idlib region getting food aid
Many people in the Idlib region rely on food aidImage: Khalil Ashawi/REUTERS

Khadija lives in Idlib, the capital of the Syrian Idlib province. The burden of responsibility weighs heavily on her shoulders. She has become her family's main breadwinner, and provides for her twin brothers, who were born with Down syndrome.

"I work a lot," she told DW in a voice message. "My father used to be able to provide for us on his own. His salary today is only enough for the food we need."

46-year-old Khadija lives together with her father and his new wife, and her 40-year-old twin brothers. She has never married: "When my mother fell ill and then died 16 years ago, it was clear to everyone in the family that I would take on the responsibility for my brothers," she says.

"I've become more than just their sister, but I love taking care of them," she adds. She cooks their favorite meals, buys their clothes and spends as much time as possible with them.

However, Khadija also has two paid jobs to make ends meet. She works in a hair salon, where she gets a share of the turnover.

Her second job is teaching hairdressing to women at the Idlib Women's Center. "The work is fulfilling. But I have to work more to improve our financial situation. Everything has become expensive."

Khadija A. from Idlib
Khadija loves her work at the women's center in IdlibImage: privat

Currency change

In late 2019, the local currency, the Syrian pound, was massively depreciated.

The reasons were manifold: The economy had no chance of recovery after years of war and sanctions against the Assad regime and various companies were making life more expensive.

This was exacerbated by the dramatic economic crisis in neighboring Lebanon, which has also had an impact on Syria.

Map overview of Idlib province at the border with Turkey
Idlib province at the border with Turkey is one of the last regions that are controlled by rebels and Islamists in Syria

Eventually, in summer 2020, the Islamists introduced the Turkish lira as the new currency throughout Idlib province, replacing the Syrian pound.

The de facto local authorities had hoped that the currency change would protect the region from the imminent economic collapse.

Idlib province in north-western Syria, near the Turkish border, is the last region under the control of Syrian rebels and Islamists.

It is predominantly under the control of Islamist militias of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group, which has emerged from the al-Nusra Front.

Sky-rocketing prices

The currency change took place just before the new US sanctions against the Syrian government came into force, putting even more pressure on the Syrian currency, which was already in free fall.

However, the Islamists did manage to stabilize prices in the Idlib province for eighteen months, Syria expert Zaki Mehchy of the British think tank Chatham House in London, told DW. "But now that the Turkish lira is deteriorating, it is affecting the living conditions of ordinary citizens in Idlib," he says.

Khadija confirms this whole-heartedly.

According to various estimates, around four million people live in Idlib province, over one million of them in refugee camps.

Many have already fled several times within Syria.

About 75 percent of Idlib province residents are in need of humanitarian assistance, according to Human Rights Watch.

The grim situation is exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the constant bombardment of the southern areas of the region by the Assad regime and its supporters.

"We have to endure a lot here, life is really not easy," says Khadija.

When the Turkish lira was introduced as a means of payment in 2020, the exchange rate was 6.8 lira for one US dollar. In the meantime, the dollar is at 12.9 lira (as of Dec 1).

"When the lira lost so much value, stores and merchants immediately raised prices," Khadija tells us. There are people who earn just 100 lira a week, she says. "How can you afford paying 157 lira for a gas bottle for cooking?" she asks.

Goods from Turkey or the black market

For example, Watad Petroleum — an oil company linked to those in power in Idlib — raised fuel prices as the value of the Turkish lira fell. While it is unclear who is behind Watad, they are known to source oil for north-western Syria mostly from Turkey.

In general, almost all goods traded in the province come from Turkey.

They enter Syria through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing.

"Even we in the hairdressing salon only use products from Turkey. But of course, goods from Syria are still in circulation," Khadija reports.

The Islamists of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham driving through Idlib
The Islamists of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham hold sway in the Idlib regionImage: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images

"In general, the resources in Idlib are not diverse enough to cover the needs of local communities," says Zaki Mehchy.

Wheat, for example, is grown in the region, but it cannot meet the region's bread needs.

"That's why they depend a lot on goods coming from Turkey or from regime-controlled areas or even from the Kurdish controlled area, and by importing these goods from or by buying these goods from these areas, they're paying extra money because these areas are suffering from an increase in the prices of basic goods," he told DW, adding that "we are talking about smuggling networks and we're talking about smugglers who control the local economy there."

Smugglers would then use this for themselves to make high profit margins.

"That's why the prices are also increasing in Idlib," Mehchy told DW. 

A boy in a refugee camp near the border with Turkey
The economic situation heavily affects people in the refugee camps on the border with TurkeyImage: OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images

The next disaster is on the way

Khadija and her family in Idlib city are grateful that they have their own house, despite the fact that they can only just make ends meet.

"Other people are much worse off here. They live in tents and depend on financial aid," she says.

Till Küster is the head of the cooperation department at the organization Medico International. He says the next disaster is looming — driven also by the onset of winter and the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Most workers and employees get their daily wages paid in Turkish lira and live on that basis. If things continue like this, people will soon hardly be able to afford bread. Currently, the only way to help is through food donations or money," he said.

For Khadija, however, leaving Idlib is out of the question.

Escaping with her two brothers would be impossible anyway. "Where would I go with them?" she asks.

"Besides, I think it's important to give the women here an economic perspective by teaching them my trade," she says.

"I want them to be able to support themselves."

Idlib refugee camps suffer from fires, flooding

This article was translated from German by Jennifer Holleis