A multi-level governance (MLG) framework is used to investigate how municipalities in Turkey have coped with the arrival of 3.6 million Syrians amid limited resources, an ambiguous legal framework, and changing national policy priorities. Qualitative research in Istanbul, which hosts the largest number of refugees, shows how municipalities have generated capacity by working with actors at other governance levels and in non-governmental spaces, via formal and informal networks. MLG arrangements did not however imply the retreat of a powerful central state. Rather, they were decisively influenced by existing power relations and governing traditions, specifically a strong state, weak local government, and mistrust of civil society. The research illuminates the complex, and sometimes surprising, relationships between tiers and spheres of governance in shaping local responses to refugee needs. The research demonstrates the explanatory power of MLG in a highly centralized unitary state, outside of the democratic (and mostly federal) contexts where it is usually applied.