The announcement by French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé on April 17 that Syria’s foreign currency reserves had halved since the beginning of the popular uprising in the country is hardly something to celebrate. Valued at $17 billion at the end of 2010, they would now be standing at some $8.5 billion according to Juppé’s estimate.
Providing a correct measure of Syria’s foreign reserves has always been problematic. While in most parts of the world foreign reserves are handled by the central bank, in Syria they are managed by two separate institutions: the Central Bank of Syria and the Commercial Bank of Syria (CBS). This is a consequence of the fact that CBS has been acting for decades as the bank of all public sector enterprises, including the Syrian Petroleum Company whose exports of crude oil were the main source of the Syrian government’s foreign reserve accumulation in the last 20 years.
The foreign assets previously known to be held by these two banks, however, adds up to only about $10.7 billion — somewhat short of $17 billion. One explanation for this, according to some insiders, is that not all reserves are calculated at the same conversion rate, with some pegged at 47 Syrian pounds to the United States dollar (the going rate at the end of 2010), and others at 11.5 pounds to the dollar (a rate the government used in some transactions until the late 1990s). The conclusion of all this is straightforward: you cannot rely much on Syrian central bank data.
But let’s go back to Mr. Juppé. The French FM made his announcement a few days before foreign ministers of western countries were set to meet in Paris to discuss additional sanctions on Syria. The collapse of Syria’s reserves was presented as a success for the international community in using sanctions to inflict damage on the Syrian economy — and, as a consequence, on the regime, as many analysts would have us to believe.
However, one needs to be clear: rejoicing in a country losing in less than a year assets it took decades to accumulate is simply insane, if not cruel. The implosion of Syria’s middle class and a gradual decline in the average purchasing power began in the mid-1980s, when a severe foreign currency crisis reduced the country’s reserves to the equivalent of less than one month of imports. Things began to improve only from the latter part of the decade when the first oil fields discovered by Royal Dutch Shell and Total S.A. began production.
Syria’s production of crude oil then increased gradually until it peaked at around 600,000 barrels per day in 1996. The period witnessed strong economic growth but also the implementation of a strict austerity program by the government, similar in many ways to the stabilization measures applied by the IMF in various countries across the world.
This program was strongly criticized by economists, and has been blamed for the state’s disinvestment from vast segments of the economy and for the stagnation in real incomes, but it had one benefit, namely saving foreign reserves for future generations.
This is what Syria is now set to lose. Not only are years of efforts being spoiled, but it is the reconstruction of the country that is rendered more difficult; future investment requirements that are made more difficult to fund. One good argument for this state of affairs, from the point of view of Western governments at least, is that a weakening of the state — because that is what the fall in reserves is about — would lead to a weakening of the regime and as a consequence to its fall.
There is historical precedent. This is exactly what many decision makers were saying in 1990 when sanctions were imposed on Iraq. We all remember the consequences of that, not least that Sadam Hussein stayed in power for 12 more years. In the meantime, the Iraqi population suffered, its social fabric was destroyed, and millions were displaced and driven into poverty. Failed sanctions were then followed by an American-led invasion.