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Turkey Opposition Puts $16B Price Tag on Neighborhood Wars

FILE - A Turkish military truck is seen transporting a mobile missile launcher to the Syrian border, near Kilis, Turkey.

Turkey’s main opposition party says the Syrian civil war and the conflict in Iraq have cost the country more than $16 billion in the past four years in refugee costs, lost import and export opportunities, and reduced tourism revenue, and it blames President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for having worsened the economic fallout for Turkey from the neighboring conflicts by pursuing what it calls “wrong policies.”

In a 72-page report released over the weekend, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) claims financial losses to Turkey from the two wars engulfing the country’s neighbors could have been reduced, if the government had pursued different policies, although it is vague on what the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) should have done differently to solve the war in Syria except to argue a “peace policy” is needed.

According to the report prepared by a group of 24 CHP lawmakers, all either with academic or business backgrounds, more than $5 billion has been spent on the more than two million refugees in Turkey who have fled from Syria and Iraq.

And the group of lawmakers, who cite field research in the border towns of Gaziantep, Sanliurfa, Mardin and Hatay, say that while exports to Syria in 2011-14 were forecast to reach $10.5 billion, they only hit $4.5 billion. The target figure for 2014 exports to Iraq was $14.2 billion, but it totaled only $10.7 billion. Tourism revenue was down by a total of $1.6 billion the past four years.

Parliamentary poll next month

The report was released as opposition parties started to turn up the heat on the ruling AKP ahead of next month’s parliamentary elections. President Erdogan hopes election results will give his party a large majority, enabling him to pass constitutional reforms to switch Turkey’s mainly parliamentary system to a presidential one that would strengthen his own power.

Turkey’s main nationalist opposition party, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), joined in the squabbling about the economy over the weekend between campaigners. Its leader Devlet Bahceli criticized the AKP government for not doing enough to help the poor, workers and farmers. His economy-focused promises include raising the minimum wage.

“I emphasize that we will raise the net minimum wage to $516. We will provide a $36 urban travel grant for minimum wage workers working in metropolitan cities every month,” he announced at an election rally unveiling the party’s election manifesto.

President remains main target of criticism

Some analysts question the CHP blaming of the government for the costs of the war and warn the party’s figures are exaggerated. Earlier this year, the influential Turkish economist Süleyman Yasar estimated the overall economic cost to Turkey from the Syrian civil war and the advance of the Islamic State in northern Iraq at $12.5 billion.

The World Bank issued a report last year that estimated the cost of the Syrian war to all five countries of the Levant - Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon - at $35 billion.

AKP politicians reacted angrily to the CHP faulting the government for the economic consequences from neighboring wars and scorned arguments leveled Sunday by CHP Deputy Chairman Faik Oztrak, that President Erdogan worsened the conflict in Syria by pursuing a vendetta against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and encouraging the rebellion against him. Oztrak said the Turkish people now understand the mistakes of President Erdogan.

“Initially people ignored the mistakes in foreign policy by saying they are busy with their work and by making a living,” he said. “But now they all began to understand that the mistakes in foreign policy can hurt the people living in the country. A mistaken foreign policy has backfired…. When we were [once] saying, ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ today we have zero neighbors,” said Oztrak.

Refugee costs seen biggest financial burden

Fears are mounting in Turkey that the cost of conflicts in Syria and Iraq will impact the country for a long time. A series of analyst reports have warned of the social and economic ramifications from the presence of more than two million refugees, who are straining the resources of local governments, impacting local labor markets and forcing up rent while wages fall.

The Department of Disaster and Emergency Management (AFAD) says the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey is 1,600,000 but the actual figure is estimated by NGOs to be more than two million.

According to Amnesty International, the financial aid provided by Turkey and international institutions covers just 15 percent of the needs of the unregistered refugees. Nearly 325,000 Syrian children are not attending school at all. The CHP warns in its report this is “creating a lost Syrian generation in Turkey.”

While agreeing with much of the CHP recommendations on what needs to be done – for instance, introducing agricultural subsidies in border towns, investing more in health and education services, and building more low-cost housing in the border areas - an editorial in the influential daily Hürriyet newspaper poses the “... $50 million question. Who is going to pay for it?”