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Strapped for dollars, the Syrian government is forcing its citizens to pay up

A decade since the start of the popular uprising, the Syrian lira is in an unprecedented freefall after years of armed conflict, an economic crisis in neighboring Lebanon, deep-seated corruption and cronyism, and Western economic sanctions targeting Syrian government officials as well as Syrian-operated industries.

As Syrians battle for basic necessities—with nearly 90 percent of Syrians living below the poverty line and 60 percent food insecure—the Syrian government has offered little reprise. Indeed, it has done the opposite: extorted Syrians through administrative costs, border fees, and ever-expanding laws and policies meant to disenfranchise Syrians of their properties and assets. With living conditions in large parts of Syria deteriorating in an unprecedented manner, the international community must ensure that its humanitarian and political responses are neither feeding into corrupt patronage networks nor exacerbating the growing food and humanitarian crisis.

On March 16, as the Syrian lira lost nearly 20 percent of its value overnight, the Syrian government issued a 50,000 SYP (roughly $11) remuneration to current military and public sector employees and 40,000 SYP (roughly $9) to retired public sector and military persons—the third of its kind since 2011. However, outside of this, the Syrian government has offered little else to ease the growing economic burden on the population. Not only has it failed to provide sufficient subsidized bread, fuel, and other basic necessities, it has also turned to its impoverished population time and again to extract both money and assets.

Administrative costs and border fees

As Syrians started fleeing Syria following 2011 and seeking refuge in neighboring countries and elsewhere, the Syrian government took advantage of the crisis by drastically increasing passport renewal costs. Despite being one of the weakest passports in the world, the Syrian passport is currently among the most expensive. Every two years (or six, if lucky), Syrians pay approximately $300 to renew their passports for normal processing of up to one month or $800 for one to two days expedited processing—not including the cost of related travel to/from Syrian consulates and embassies and bribes to fixers and Syrian officials, which can add up to hundreds of additional dollars. Compare this to the approximate $30 renewal fee charged prior to 2011. Without a valid passport, Syrians who do not have an alternative national or refugee identity card—as is often the case for Syrians in neighboring countries—cannot obtain foreign residencies and therefore risk deportation.

Following the start of Lebanon’s economic meltdown in late 2019, the Syrian regime mandated that all citizens entering Syria must exchange $100 at the border using the Central Bank’s exchange rate of 1,256 SYP to the US dollar (as compared to the actual rate of 4,340 SYP at the time of this writing). In doing so, the government would not only obtain US dollars from each Syrian entering the country, but would also profit from the low exchange rate while returning only a fraction of the amount to the traveler. According to Finance Minister Ma’mun Hamdan, the decision was taken to increase the revenue of the Central Bank and support the Syrian lira, noting that “it is unlikely that Syrians abroad or those traveling abroad don’t possess $100.” This requirement for Syrians to “exchange” $100 at the border is arguably illegal both under the Syrian constitution and international law, given that it infringes on a citizens’ freedom of movement and ability to leave and return to their country of origin.

A few months after the $100 exchange mandate and following the outbreak of the coronavirus, the Syrian government again took advantage of the crisis; they required Syrians entering the country to quarantine in designated hotels near the Damascus International Airport at a cost of $100 per person for two nights—not including meals—until a COVID-19 test could be administered. Individuals traveling together in the same “COVID bubble” were separated and required to pay for separate rooms. Those who tested positive were required to extend their quarantine at presumably an additional cost. Prior to this requirement, Syrians returning from abroad were quarantined in unsterile, crowded, and poorly ventilated dormitories and government buildings. Only after pictures of these squalid conditions were leaked, did the Syrian government allow for hotel quarantining, which allowed them to again charge citizens.

Military conscription exemption fee and state seizure of assets

Most recently, the head of the Syrian Defense Ministry’s Allowance and Defense Branch, Colonel Elias al-Bitar, brought to light a relatively unknown amendment to Syria’s Law 39, known as the military conscription law—another recent effort by the Bashar al-Assad regime to enrich its state coffers at the expense of its population. The amendment, issued on December 17, 2019, allowed for the immediate confiscation of the assets of males over the age of forty-two who had escaped mandatory military conscription and failed to pay the $8,000 exemption fee, an increase from the earlier $5,000 fee. Whereas previously, the state could not confiscate assets without first obtaining a judicial order, this amendment would allow the state to seize and sell assets immediately, without any due process or even the facade of one.

In the video, Colonel al-Bitar wrongfully stated that the government could seize the assets of next of kin, including wives, children, and other immediate relatives, if necessary to cover the exemption fee. With half of the Syrian population displaced either internally or abroad, this news brought considerable alarm. While most men who are subject to military conscription have gone missing, been disappeared, or fled Syria altogether, many have left behind their elderly parents, wives, or other immediate relatives, placing their homes, properties, and other assets at tremendous risk. Following public outcry, the Syrian foreign ministry was quick to clarify that this 2019 amendment would not impact next of kin. Yet, many Syrians fear al-Bitar’s statement is a premonition of what is to come, and some have even opted to sell their properties out of fear of government seizure.

Ironically, while the Syrian government criminalizes the use of foreign currencies in business and personal dealings—punishable by at least seven years of hard labor and fines—it has increasingly relied upon the US dollar in government-mandated transactions, fines, and fees to replenish its drastically diminished state coffers as its own currency plummets. Likewise, it has also required all foreign remittances to be transferred through the Central Bank and then paid out in Syrian liras at an exchange rate of 2,550 SYP to the dollar, nearly half of the current value. The Syrian regime is even considering proposals by the parliament now to require exporters earning foreign currency to sell that currency to the Central Bank at the official exchange rate, a considerable loss to Syrian businesses.

Time to reexamine Western carrot and stick approaches  

With Syria edging ever closer to becoming a failed state, the Syrian government will likely continue to find ways to extract money and assets from the impoverished Syrian population, while simultaneously funneling international aid through Syrian government organizations, such as Asma al-Assad’s Syria Trust for Development, and regime-linked NGOs. As the Syrian regime and its patronage networks rely more and more on unofficial corruption and official legal mechanisms to disenfranchise the Syrian populace, the international community must reexamine its foreign aid to ensure that it is actually reaching those most in need rather than propping up the Assad oligarchy, as has often been the case.

In addition, Western countries should ensure that their sanctions regimes do not undermine important humanitarian efforts or impact Syrians’ ability to send necessary remittances to their families in Syria. Continuing to operate in a business-as-usual manner, without fully understanding regime tactics—including efforts to extort citizens for money and assets as well as recognizing the drastically deteriorating living conditions in Syria—may only serve to hinder the underlying humanitarian, political, and accountability purposes of Western carrot and stick approaches.

Reem Salahi (JD) is a Nonresident Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center and a consultant specializing in Syria, human rights and rule of law.

Atlantic Council- Reem Salahi
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