Syrians fear hunger as record devaluation sparks protests

Syrians fear hunger as record devaluation sparks protests
The Hamidiyah souk in the old city of Syria’s capital Damascus, where the shops have been closed due to the COVID-19 lockdown. (AFP)
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Updated 11 June 2020

Syrians fear hunger as record devaluation sparks protests

Syrians fear hunger as record devaluation sparks protests
  • The sudden jump in prices has brought unprecedented criticism of the regime in government-held areas

BEIRUT: Umm Ahmed and her family have survived years of war, but now the mother of five is terrified uncontrolled devaluation of the Syrian pound will prevent her from feeding her children.

“Since the war started, we’ve tasted all sorts of suffering,” said the 39-year-old, displaced three times by fighting in the rebel stronghold of Idlib. “I think hunger will be among the next.”

The value of the Syrian pound has plummeted with dizzying speed in recent days on the informal market, sending prices skyrocketing, shuttering shops, and sparking unprecedented protests.

Umm Ahmed was so alarmed she was considering buying flour in bulk to hoard supplies.

“If the pound continues to collapse like this, we are facing a huge famine,” said Umm Ahmed, who is relying on dwindling savings as her husband struggles to help with odd jobs.

“We sold some land we inherited and we have been living off that but I don’t think it will last long with these obscene price hikes,” she said in the town of Binnish.

In Idlib, the increase in the price of bread has sparked protests against Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham jihadists in charge of the region of three million people — around half displaced by the conflict and many dependent on aid.

Syria’s economy has been battered by nine years of war, compounded by a financial crisis in neighboring Lebanon, which had served as a conduit for dollars into government-held areas under international sanctions.

But in recent days the value of the Syrian pound on the black market has started to tumble.

From Saturday to Monday alone, the exchange rate soared from 2,300 to more than 3,000 pounds to the dollar, more than four times the official rate of around 700. Before the conflict, it stood at 47.

Analysts say the recent spike is likely due to worries ahead of the introduction of new US sanctions from June 15, and the sudden fall from grace of Rami Makhlouf, the tycoon and cousin of the president, which has set other top businessmen on edge.

Prices have risen across the country, though the Turkish lira is used in some parts of the rebel-held north. The government has blamed the unofficial devaluation on US sanctions, and “manipulation” of the exchange rate.

But the rapid deterioration has sparked unprecedented criticism in government-held areas, including in the southern city of Sweida, where dozens have demonstrated for three days since Sunday, boldly chanting against the president.

“Down with Bashar Assad,” a video carried by a local news outlet showed them chanting.

“Revolution, freedom, social justice,” they shouted in slogans reminiscent of the 2011 uprising whose repression sparked the civil war that has killed more than 380,000 people.

In the capital Damascus, one lawmaker said Sunday that part of the blame for the unofficial devaluation lay with the “wrong policies practiced by the government.”

Another demanded action from the central bank, which increased the official exchange rate from 434 to 700 in March, but has since maintained that peg.

In a country where the vast majority lives in poverty, the World Food Programme says food prices have risen by 133 percent since May 2019.

“WFP estimates that 9.3 million Syrians are food insecure — more than ever recorded,” spokeswoman Jessica Lawson said.

Analyst Zaki Mehchy said that, without a political solution to the war, the devaluation would probably continue, leaving the government scrambling to control the damage.

“The regime cannot allow further increases in prices as it knows that this will lead... to uncontrollable social unrest,” he said.