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The Syrian Pound Signals Economic Deterioration

  • Zaki Mehchy

    Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House

    Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House

The Syrian currency depreciated by 11% between mid-August and the first week of September, to reach an unprecedented level of SYP692 to the US dollar. According to the government, the main reasons behind this collapse are the international sanctions imposed on Syria and currency speculation.

Accordingly, the government has forced speculators and local foreign exchange companies to sell the US dollar instead of holding it. Moreover, Syrian security agencies have pressured profiteers with close links to the regime to effectively participate in campaigns that support the local currency. Indeed, the Syrian pound appreciated in value in only a few days to reach an average of SYP615 for $1 in the second week of September.

This high volatility in currency prices results in monetary uncertainty among traders, and thus, increases the possibility of other depreciations in the near future.

Currency speculation could be the reason behind the high fluctuations. However, the fall in the exchange rate has been a continuous and steady trend ever since the beginning of the conflict. The Syrian currency is about 13 times less valuable than before conflict, and fell by 20% between January and September 2019. It is therefore more likely that the devaluation reflects a structural deterioration of the Syrian economy.

There are a number of interlinked reasons behind this trend.

Economic collapse

The conflict in Syria has led to a drastic decline in economic activity. By 2018, the total accumulated economic loss was estimated at about $428 billion, which equaled 6 times Syria’s GDP in 2010. The country’s GDP lost about 65% of its value compared to its level before the war. The conflict has also caused a reallocation of resources to destructive and war-related activities. This drop in economic productivity weighs on the Syrian pound’s stability.

Dramatic export decline

The total value of Syrian exports contracted from $12.2 billion in 2010 to less than $700 million in 2018, whereas imports declined from $19.7 billion to $4.4 billion during the same period. Thus, the coverage ratio of exports to imports dropped from 62% to 16% in this period, indicating that the government has become very dependent on external trade partners. Almost all import payments are made in foreign currencies, which increases the devaluation pressure on the Syrian pound.

Iran has provided the Syrian regime with credit lines estimated at about $6 billion to import oil and consumer goods from the Islamic Republic. These credit lines do not include all the Iranian financial support to the regime. Iranian oil exports to Syria are estimated at about 2 million barrels a month (a total of around $16 billion during the eight years of conflict). The increasing external debt to Iran, also due to military support, may contribute in stabilizing the Syrian pound for short period, yet it is bound to sustain the devaluation pressure in the long run.

Damaging monetary policies

Since the beginning of the conflict, the Central Bank of Syria has issued a series of decisions that have contributed to the weakening of the Syrian pound. For instance, until 2015, the bank adopted a policy of selling hard currencies to local foreign exchange companies. This policy depleted their foreign currency reserves by about $1.2 billion, without halting the deterioration of the pound. The bank has also increased the money supply; there is three times the amount of currency in the local market as today compared to before the conflict, causing a surge in inflation and currency devaluation.

The absence of foreign direct investment

Between 2005 and 2010, Syria received an annual average of $1.5 billion as foreign direct investment (FDI); this amount has dropped almost to zero during the years of conflict. Russia and Iran have continued to invest in Syria, mainly in the mining sector, but the conditions of these investments have limited the inflows of foreign currency to Syria. FDI inflows were a major source of hard currency; their absence is an additional driver of currency depreciation.

International sanctions

Many countries have imposed sanctions on various sectors in Syria, including energy and financial transactions. During the last two years, the US has tightened its sanctions by introducing the Caesar law, which aims to isolate the Syrian regime. These sanctions have increased the cost of the Syrian imports and therefore raised demand for foreign currencies. Remittances, estimated at $4.5 million per day as well as foreign investments and exports were also negatively affected, and this has reduced the supply side of hard currencies inside Syria.

Currency speculation

The Syrian regime usually intervenes to manage currency speculation through government agencies and friendly business entities. But such speculations are very difficult to control in Syria given the poor economic conditions, the high level of business uncertainty and the lack of trust in institutions. This has driven the Syrian households, those who did not already lose their savings, to buy gold or hard currencies as safe investments.

The Syrian pound’s depreciation and its high fluctuations reflect the fragile political and economic situation in the country. The government’s improvised decisions have failed to stabilize it, causing a rise in the prices of basic goods. This has left more than 90% of Syria’s population under the poverty line. Long-term stability in exchange rates requires an inclusive and sustainable development strategy, one that would need to be based on an accountable and transparent political landscape. That seems a long way off.