Syria’s War-Battered Pound Hit by Russian Withdrawal

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Women carry Free Syrian Army flags, south of Idlib, March 18. The collapse of the currency in has driven up inflation and aggravated wartime hardship, as Syrians struggle to afford basics such as food and power. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

March 19 – Battered by war which has inflicted incalculable damage on industry, infrastructure and economy, Syria‘s currency hit new lows this week after Russia said it was reducing its military support to President Bashar Al Assad.

The Syrian pound has fallen to 475 to the dollar on the black market, a 90 percent drop since March 18, 2011, when security forces fired on protesters in the city of Deraa, sparking an uprising which descended into civil war.

Backed by financial and trade support from Iran, Syria‘s government succeeded in stabilizing the pound early in the conflict.

But the slide accelerated as it lost control of territory and border crossings, trade collapsed, Western sanctions bit, Gulf Arab investment dried up, major cities were devastated and half the population was displaced.

The collapse of the currency has driven up inflation and aggravated wartime hardship, as Syrians struggle to afford basics such as food and power. Government budget spending in pounds has more than doubled, but in dollar terms has crashed.

Russia’s surprise military intervention in September turned the tide of war in Assad’s favour, but only briefly stemmed the currency‘s decline, and Moscow’s declaration on Monday that it was pulling forces out of the country hit the pound again.

PANIC

“In the last few days it came under further pressure because of the Russian announcement,” a Damascus-based businessman said. “There was a lot of panic”.

At the start of the uprising, the pound was around 47 to the dollar.

“Today the (official central bank) intervention rate is around 406 but it reached 475 pounds in the black market,” Hani Al Khoury, a financial consultant based in Damascus, said late on Thursday.

He said official efforts had prevented an even graver depreciation.

“Compared to the extent of the crisis and its devastating impact on the economy, the pound could have been far more affected,” he told Reuters by telephone.

Infusions of money from Iran and dollar remittances from Syrians working abroad have also helped prevent an even steeper freefall, bankers say.

Iran is believed to have deposited hundreds of millions of dollars in the country’s depleted reserves.

The government has also clamped down on currency exchanges in an effort to narrow the gap between official and black market rates. But in recent weeks the official rate has fallen as fast as the black market, showing the limits of central bank influence.

DOLLARIZATION

The pound’s fall has pushed Syrian traders to switch their financing increasingly into foreign currency, Khoury said, a trend which may have been accelerated by the flows of billions of dollars of international humanitarian aid into the country.

“The Syrian economy has been dollarized – the import side and the financing side, along with savings and the aid coming from outside,” he said.

That, combined with the continued pressures caused by the war, meant that whatever steps authorities take, the pound “is bound to continue to gradually drop”.

Militant jihadists control most of the east of the country, rebels and Islamist fighters hold parts of cities in the west, including neighbourhoods of the former commercial hub Aleppo, and Kurdish groups control some northern regions.

“In every street in Damascus there is a different rate,” the Damascus businessman said. “In Homs, Aleppo, Damascus, the black market rate varies.”

He held out little hope of recovery for the currency without an end to hostilities. “Can you say whether the Geneva peace talks will succeed, or whether the armed groups will stop fighting?” he said.

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