Syria’s ongoing civil war, which descended into bloodshed after starting as an unarmed uprising in March 2011, has caused the country’s economy to plummet to new depths. In both government-controlled and rebel-dominated communities, Syrians are struggling to clothe their kids and put food on the table.
As the value of the Syrian pound continues to sink, residents in opposition-controlled parts of Aleppo have adopted Turkish currency in its place. Before the crisis began four years ago, 1 U.S. dollar hovered at around 45 Syrian lira – today it reaches as high as up to 300 Syrian lira per U.S. dollar.
All the while, with inflation and prices both soaring in besieged parts of Aleppo, local salaries stayed the same and the quality of life fell.
The Aleppo Sharia Committee was one of the first institutions to adopt the Turkish lira when it paid its employees in the foreign currency in July. “I was surprised last month when I received my salary in Turkish lira,” Abu Bara, a 31-year-old in the Sharia Committee-controlled police department, said. “My salary is 12,000 Syrian lira – about 115 Turkish lira. It’s a good measure because it promotes stability in local businesses.”
Once an economic lifeline in Syria, Aleppo was home to many traders, artisans and businesses and provided a relatively high amount of job opportunities for Syrians who would come from other parts of the country. Now, however, locals say that the security situation and economic catastrophe haunt the city.
The Liberal Economists Union — an independent union that isn’t affiliated with any parties – was founded by volunteer economists and academics that stayed in Aleppo after the situation began to deteriorate. In February, the union formed a committee to examine the currency crisis.
Consisting of 30 members – 12 economic specialists and several judges, lawyers and representatives of armed factions – the committee concluded that Syrian currency should be replaced by the Turkish lira in all rebel-controlled parts of northern Syria, starting with Aleppo. Rebel-controlled institutions, civil organizations and armed groups all began paying salaries in the newly-adopted Turkish lira last month.
Aleppo-area residents were divided by the measure. Food merchant Abu Abdo was pleased. “We had started dealing in U.S. dollars because Syrian currency was so unstable,” he told us. “We were afraid to lose all of our money if the Syrian lira fell anymore one day.”
“We have replaced the regime’s last foothold – in the economy,” he added. Muhammad Halawani, a 35-year-old Aleppo-based activist, blasted the decision, arguing that it would open Syria up to “economic occupation” by Turkey. “The price of the Turkish lira isn’t always stable in financial markets, either,” he said. “This decision will have disastrous consequences.”
Muhammad al-Bakkour is a 35-year-old economist and member of the Liberal Economists Union. He explained, “The reason we chose the Turkish lira is because it is easy to secure small change with. We couldn’t secure coins in order to be able to use the U.S. dollar.”
“We studied this for six months with economists and experts,” he added. “In the end, the armed factions and most of the civil groups in Aleppo agreed.”
Al-Bakkour explained that ATMs have been set up in neighborhoods across the city so that residents can go and exchange their Syrian currency. “We are urging people to implement this change and start putting prices and doing transactions in Turkish lira,” he said, adding that many locals will continue to use U.S. dollars and euros for a number of their business dealings.
Hassan, a 41-year-old tailor, fears the move will cause prices to rise yet again. “The price of goods in general will rise to [levels] like in Turkey,” he said. “The prices are high now because of the war, but when the conflict stops things will return to the way there.”
Photo: Graffiti in Aleppo reads: “The money of the revolution is for the people.” (Associated Press/Mónica G. Prieto)