Falling Turkish lira forces Syrians in Idlib into panic buying

Continuing decline in Turkey's currency bodes ill for Syrians in Idlib with inflation rates beating even the most pessimistic forecasts

Syrians receive Turkish lira at a currency exchange shop in the town of Sarmada in Syria's north-western Idlib province. AFP
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As Turkish lira continues to plummet in value, Syrians in rebel-held Idlib are rushing to buy household staples before prices rise sharply.

People in the neighbourhood of Kafr Takhareem have described queuing for hours outside shops.

What was intended to be a quick errand for Ihsan Naseef turned into a two-hour wait outside his local supermarket.

“I just need to pick up at least two months of groceries and supplies for my wife and three children as I’m sure the prices will continue to soar in the days to come,” the maths teacher, 42, told The National via WhatsApp.

Idlib, the last remaining stronghold controlled by forces opposed to President Bashar Al Assad, adopted the Turkish currency last year as an alternative to the Syrian pound, which plummeted significantly after 10 years of civil war.

A Syrian man and a boy ride a motorcycle while carrying cotton candy at a street of Idlib, Syria. EPA

But the lira has now lost more than 20 per cent of its dollar value since the start of the year, leading to a reduced standard of living in Turkey as it costs more to buy goods. The exchange rate today hovers around 14 liras for US $1.

This bodes ill for the people of Idlib, as business owners have to charge more for imported commodities. It even beats the most pessimistic forecasts among Syrian retailers.

Prices rise

“It costs me around three liras for one kilo of potatoes and I sell it in the local market here for four liras now. It used to be 3.5 liras last month,” said Wael Hussein, a vegetable importer and owner of a supermarket.

There is no official data from the Central Bank of Syria or statistics authority on the inflation rate in the opposition-held Idlib. But retailers like Mr Hussein believe it to be in the region of 20-40 per cent based on official and unofficial data in neighbouring Turkey.

On average, prices have gone up by 50 per cent over the past six months.

For the most part of this year, people were understanding and relatively calm. But patience has started to grow thin over the last month.

“It’s crazy that some traders started charging inflated prices for anything from vegetables to TV sets,” fumed Mr Naseef.

“A whole chicken now costs around 15 liras. A few months ago, it used to be six or seven liras. We aren’t talking here about saving for summer holidays as many people do around the world, we just want to make ends meet and feed our families.”

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Dependent on lira as Syria's currency crumbles

The Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTC)-affiliated government in Idlib said in the past that the adoption of the Turkish lira was not only a sign of support and gratitude to Turkey after its intervention in the “liberated areas” but an economic decision as the Syrian pound became all but worthless.

All employees in the self-declared government in Idlib take their salaries in Turkish lira, including HTC fighters. The average monthly salary bracket is around 500-800 liras ($37-59).

HTC, which controls Idlib, did not respond to a request for comment on what it is doing to control prices.

The Syrian government in Damascus has rejected what it calls persistent attempts by “Turkish occupation in the north to impose its hegemony over the national economy”.

Between 2016 and now, Turkey has launched four cross-border military operations against Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria.

The rise in prices is fuelling panic buying, locals say, an act that can further drive up prices and make essential goods a rarity.

“In Idlib, the authorities are facing a major drive in inflation, small businesses are struggling to temper fluctuating product prices and import costs and its citizens will face high prices for fuel, food (particularly wheat) and other basic services and products,” Caroline Rose, a senior analyst and head of the Power Vacuums programme in the human security unit at the Newlines Institute, told The National.

Ms Rose said the Syrian economy was already closely intertwined with the Lebanese economy and banking system, something that has induced further economic strain in the country, hitting business activity, spending patterns, food security and financial conditions heavily.

“Unfortunately, there are not many alternatives for Idlib authorities, other than trying to adjust to these new price shocks, weak purchasing power, wage devaluation and advocating for increased humanitarian aid that could help offset these difficult challenges,” she said.

Since 2011, the Turkish Red Crescent (Kizilay) has delivered 55,000 lorries of aid to Syria.

Turkish officials say this aid has amounted to 3.5bn Turkish lira ($281m).

The United Nations says 13.4 million people inside Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance, including six million in acute need. More than 12 million were struggling to find enough food each day and 500,000 children were chronically malnourished.

Updated: December 08, 2021, 10:04 AM
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