Syria government tries to bolster falling currency

Associated Press
This citizen journalism image provided by Lens Young Homsi, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows the 13th-century mosque of Khalid Ibn al-Walid, which was damaged by Syrian government airstrikes and shelling, in Homs province, Syria, Thursday, July 11, 2013. Heavy fighting has been taking place around the mosque and government troops have heavily shelled the area in the past days in the central city of Homs. (AP Photo/Lens Young Homsi)
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This citizen journalism image provided by Lens Young Homsi, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows the 13th-century mosque of Khalid Ibn al-Walid, which was damaged by Syrian government airstrikes and shelling, in Homs province, Syria, Thursday, July 11, 2013. Heavy fighting has been taking place around the mosque and government troops have heavily shelled the area in the past days in the central city of Homs. (AP Photo/Lens Young Homsi)

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — The Syrian government is buying up local currency and raising penalties for black-market deals to try to stop the fall of the pound, which has tumbled to record lows against the U.S. dollar, the state-run news agency SANA said Thursday.

Syria's move Wednesday came as the currency hit a record low, reaching 310 pounds to the dollar compared with 47 pounds to the dollar when the country's crisis began 28 months ago.

The record drop of the pound happened on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when observing Muslims abstain from food, drinking, smoking and sex from dawn to dusk. Many Syrians found it difficult this year to buy some food because of soaring prices in the markets.

SANA said the government approved a bill Wednesday that criminalizes business deals in currencies other than the pound, with penalties ranging from three to 10 years in prison.

The bill also seeks to prevent manipulation of prices in the market and "curb (the) exploitation of citizens' needs," SANA said.

SANA also quoted Central Bank Gov. Adib Mayyaleh as saying that the monetary regulator sold $50 million to foreign exchange companies Wednesday at the rate of 247.5 pounds to the dollar. The official rate still stands at 104 pounds to the dollar, though it is widely ignored even by the state.

The pound was trading Thursday at 260 to the dollar, a day after the exchange rate fell to 310 pounds. The currency began a sharp descent last month after the U.S. decision to arm Syrian rebels.

A recent report by the International Crisis Group suggested that though the Syrian pound faces increasing pressure, it "has not entirely collapsed."

"Authorities still distribute salaries to public servants and fund the military-security apparatus," the report said.

Syria is believed to have relied heavily on Iran to support its economy. Iran reportedly supplied Assad's regime with billions of dollars since the crisis began in March 2011.

The Syrian civil war has killed more than 93,000 people, according to the United Nations, and displaced millions of people. The northern city of Aleppo, Syria's once commercial center, has witnessed deadly fighting, shelling and air raid since July last year.

When the conflict began, the government had some $17 billion in foreign currency reserves. But that figure has dropped from blows to two main pillars of the economy: oil exports, which used to bring in up to $8 million per day, and tourism, which accounted for $8 billion in 2010. The U.S. and the European Union bans on oil imports are estimated to cost Syria about $400 million a month.

Syrian officials haven't said how much cash is left in the nation's reserves. Yet despite the economic pressure, the conflict grinds on.

"Many months in, the refrain was that diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions essentially would suffice; all eyes were on Syria's foreign currency reserves, their depletion somehow being seen as the tipping point in the regime's fate," the International Crisis Group report said. "Over time, the calculus changed."

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