Syrian Finance Minister Mohammad al-Jleilati said that Russia was providing both replacement notes and additional currency to, as SANA put it, “reflect the country’s changing GDP.”
Al-Jleilati said the money would have no effect on inflation. Printing new notes beyond simply replacing old ones could undermine Syria’s already battered currency.
At the time of the meeting, at least 30 tons of currency had already been delivered, according to the flight records, and another 210 tons would be delivered in subsequent flights.
In its regional economic outlook released earlier this month, the International Monetary Fund noted that Syria’s currency has lost 44 percent of its value since March 2011, trading for about 70 pounds to the dollar compared with about 47 pounds when the conflict began.
Ibrahim Saif, a political economist based in Jordan and a resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center said 30 tons of bank notes twice a week is a significant amount for a country like Syria.
“I truly believe it’s not only that they’re exchanging old money for new notes. They are printing money because they need new notes,” Saif said.
“Most of the government revenue that comes from taxes, in terms of other services, it’s almost now dried up,” noted Saif. Yet, “they continue to pay salaries. They have not shown any signs of weakness in fulfilling their domestic obligations. The only way they can do this is to get some sort of cash in the market.”
Before the unrest broke out, Syria had about $17 billion in foreign currency reserves. Saif said he and other economists in the region estimate they now have about $6-8 billion in reserves, dwindling about $500 million a month for salaries and supplies to keep the government running.
In Moscow, the Syrian finance minister had said that his country required additional foreign currency reserves, which Russia may provide in the form of loans.
“It’s possible the Syrians are acquiring foreign currency reserves, either Euros or US dollars, which they would need to conduct any serious commerce,” said Juan Zarate, who served as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes during the Bush administration.
Zarate noted that other countries, when faced with economic sanctions, have leaned on allies for foreign currency reserves. China supplied North Korea with such funds in the past and Venezuela agreed to sell reserves to Iran.
Syria’s currency is still traded on open markets, but there is limited on-the-ground information about the economy, including inflation.
Officials at the IMF “have not been able to get direct information about Syria for at least a year,” Masood Ahmed, director of the group’s Middle East and Central Asia department, told reporters at a conference in Tokyo last month.
Glaser, at Treasury, declined to put a figure on Syria’s current reserves but said the Syrian economy is suffering in part from a lack of tourism and a ban on oil sales, both of which provided Damascus with foreign currency. “There is significant inflation in the country. It can be caused by adding new currency or not having foreign reserves to prop up the existing currency.”
Quinn Norton contributed to this story.