Legal Briefing- March 2020

Health

  • The Ministry of Health announced that Syria had officially registered 19 cases of COVID-19 weeks after neighboring countries started reporting their first infections. The actual number of cases is thought by some observers to be higher given that not all the potential carriers of the disease, whether symptomatic or asymptomatic, are presumed to have been diagnosed accordingly. Patients who test positive for COVID-19 are being held in quarantine. Two fatalities have officially been registered as caused by COVID-19 while four patients have reportedly recovered.
  • According to the Chinese Ambassador to Syria, China will provide Syria with enough virus test kits to diagnose 2,000 people in the first stage of its medical aid program.
  • Syrian and Chinese doctors are communicating via videoconferencing in order for the Chinese doctors to advise their Syrian counterparts and offer their experience with respect to the fight against COVID-19.
  • A treatment protocol listing medications and dosages to be used to treat patients diagnosed with COVID-19 who require medical care has been adopted and will be adhered to by hospitals throughout Syria.
  • Syria set up quarantine and treatment facilities in several locations, including hospitals and health centers, in 12 of the 14 provinces to deal with suspected and potential cases of COVID-19.
  • Hotels and educational institutions are being placed at the disposal of the Ministry of Health to be used as quarantine centers if deemed necessary.
  • Conditions at the quarantine center hosting persons entering into Syria who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19 caused an outcry on social media, thus obliging the authorities to pledge to renovate the facility up to the standards of hotel rooms.
  • A special committee was formed to control the prices of sterilizers and detergents, which are in high demand due to fears of COVID-19.
  • The Ministry of Health warned pharmacies that they risked closure for six months if they raise the prices of face masks and sterilizers.
  • Manufacturers and traders are shifting their attention to producing and importing products respectively to tackle COVID-19, including sterilizers, detergents, face masks and so forth.
  • Curfews between 6pm and 6am have been instituted throughout Syria as part of the COVID-19 response plan. Any person who violates the curfew conditions faces a fine of SYP 2,000 or imprisonment for a period of 10 days. However, the penalties could be harsher. The penalties are stricter under the Communicable Diseases Law, in which COVID-19 is classified as such. According to the Attorney General of Rural Damascus, breaking curfew could lead to imprisonment ranging from six months to three years and a fine from SYP 50,000 to SYP 500,000. The Ministry of Interior announced the arrest of individuals who broke curfew and who were subsequently referred to the judiciary.

Finance

  • The Central Bank held an auction for the 17 public and private banks operating in Syria to subscribe to certificates of deposit with a nominal value of SYP 100 million per certificate. The subscription was the first of its kind for this year and amounted to SYP 92.2 billion with an annual interest rate of 6.5%. 11 out of the 17 banks subscribed to the certificates of deposit. The issuance was the first one undertaken in 2020 and the second in its history by the Central Bank. The first issuance of certificates of deposit by the Central Bank took place in February 2019, which amounted to SYP 130.8 billion with a maturity period of one year at a fixed interest rate of 4.5%. The Central Bank paid out its dues to the subscribers accordingly.
  • The Council of Ministers agreed to subsidize interest rates by seven percent on loans of up to SYP 500 million by banks to manufacturers in Aleppo to undertake restoration works on facilities damaged during the war. Such damage must range from 15% to 75% to qualify for support.
  • The Central Bank requested all banks to temporarily suspend the granting of credit facilities as part of the COVID-19 response plan but deposits, withdrawals and transfers will continue uninterrupted.
  • The Monetary and Credit Council permitted banks to postpone loan repayments owed to them by three months without classifying them as a restructuring or rescheduling, thereby avoiding any legal consequences.
  • The Central Bank issued a circular permitting banks to close some of their branches and suspend some operations while limiting their import financing facilities to basic goods and materials.
  • The government allocated SYP 100 billion to be utilized as part of plans to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Monetary

  • The Counter Money Laundering and Terrorism Financing Commission issued a circular stating the monetary amounts whether in Syrian Pounds or foreign currencies that persons arriving and departing Syria may possess and declare to Customs at ports of entry and exit in the country. Accordingly, persons entering Syria can possess up to $100,000 (US) or its equivalent in foreign currencies. Furthermore, there are no limits on the amounts of Syrian Pounds permissible upon entry into Syria. Persons entering Syria in possession of less than $5,000 or its equivalent in foreign currencies can freely do so without a permit. Syrians departing Syria may possess up to $10,000 or its equivalent in foreign currencies while foreign nationals are restricted to the amount of $5,000 or its equivalent in foreign currencies. As a qualification to the rule, foreign nationals have the right to take out the amounts denominated in foreign currencies that they declared upon entry into Syria, which it is presumed will not exceed $100,000 or its equivalent in foreign currencies.
  • The Central Bank mandated that imports of basic goods by the state-owned ‘Syria Trading and the General Foreign Trade Organization shall be financed at the rate of SYP 438 per US Dollar while all other transactions will be fixed at the official rate of SYP 700 per US Dollar.

Taxation

  • Following calls from the Aleppo Chamber of Industry, the Customs Department agreed not to permit customs patrols to operate inside the city of Aleppo but rather on its main entrances so as not to negatively affect or hinder economic activities inside the city.
  • The Ministry of Finance granted a 60-day extension for the submission of tax returns, which will now be due on May 30th.
  • The Economic Committee affiliated to the Council of Ministers granted owners of touristic facilities facing closure tax exemptions for the months of March and April on the condition of not making their employees redundant and paying their salaries.

Capital Markets

  • Prime Minister Imad Khamis reduced stock trading on the Damascus Securities Exchange to one day per week as part of the precautionary measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Insurance

  • According to the Director of the Insurance Supervisory Commission, health insurance policies issued by all public and private insurance companies cover the treatment for COVID-19.

Energy

  • Foreign investors participated in the incorporation of two oil services companies in Damascus.
  • The Ministry of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection raised existing gasoline prices by SYP 25 per liter.
  • The Council of Ministers discussed a bill to create a fund to support the use of renewable energy.
  • Syria’s Public-Private Partnership Council approved the construction of a 50-megawatt photovoltaic power plant in Deir Attiyeh located in the province of Rural Damascus. The project involves an investment by the private sector in a publicly owned asset.
  • Chinese, Indian and Iranian companies are studying the prospects of investing in two waste recycling projects being offered up by the state.

Commerce

  • The executive regulations to Legislative Decrees 3/2020 and 4/2020 are expected to include further clarifications on classifying importers and exporters accordingly so that they can deal in foreign currencies without risking sanctions, including prison sentences with hard labor.
  • As part of plans to respond to the economic fallout resulting from COVID-19, the Economic Committee chaired by Prime Minister Imad Khams initially decided to exempt importers of foodstuffs and relevant raw materials, sterilizers and detergents from the Import Deposit Rules.
  • The Ministry of Economy and Foreign Trade subsequently revoked the Import Deposit Rules until further notice. They required importers to deposit up to 40% of the value of their imported goods with the banks.
  • The Minister of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection emphasized that in the event any merchant monopolizes or manipulates the prices of food products, the Consumer Protection Law will be invoked whereby the goods will be confiscated and sold to consumers at official prices.
  • The government permitted all manufacturers and traders to import flour to increase stockpiles.
  • The Chambers of Commerce Bill was proving difficult to get through the People’s Assembly as various provisions were subject to disagreements and extensive debates with the latest being over the educational qualifications of senior officers of the various chambers of commerce. In the end, the People’s Assembly approved the Chambers of Commerce Bill, which came into force upon ratification from President Bashar Al-Assad. It will replace Law 131/1959.
  • Restaurants and cafes were closed to customers as part of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 but they may still offer delivery and takeaway services.
  • Prime Minister Imad Khamis issued a circular to the governors in the provinces requesting them to take necessary measures to close markets and other public places with the exception of food and catering establishments, pharmacies and health centers in response to COVID-19 risks.

Industry

  • The government approved a proposal by the Ministry of Economy and Foreign Trade to include the production of certain types of aluminum packaging, panels, tubes, cables, rods and bars within the import substitution program. Accordingly, the factories in question will benefit from loans, allocations of land within the industrial parks, and the imposition of import controls in order to stimulate and facilitate the sale of local products.
  • The Syrian Investment Authority licensed a project by a new emerging businessman to manufacture calcium carbonate in accordance with the incentives provided for in the Investment Law.
  • Syria’s Public-Private Partnership Council approved private sector participation in the establishment of a production line to manufacture medicinal vials at the state-owned General Corporation for the Glass Industry in Aleppo. A vial is a small glass used to store medication.
  • The government agreed to support some components of the textile industries by covering 15% of their fuel costs for the rest of the year.
  • The Damascus Chamber of Industry launched the Industrial Takaful Fund to support businesses affected by COVID-19.

Agriculture

  • The Peasants Union objected to a government decision to increase fertilizer prices by up to 100%.
  • The People’s Assembly approved a bill that exempts livestock breeders from paying SYP 8.2 billion in interest payments.

Property

  • The government is exempting any tenants who lease or invest in public property from paying rental fees for a period of two months, which may be extended depending on the circumstances, and calls on landlords throughout the country to apply the same conditions to their tenants.

Transport

  • Maintenance works have commenced on the Damascus-Aleppo railroad.
  • Minister of Transport Ali Hammoud was questioned in the People’s Assembly over purchases of airplanes. One MP denied rumors that the Minister faced any motion by MPs to withdraw confidence in his performance, which would have been an unprecedented move.
  • The Ministry of Interior issued a circular as part of the precautionary measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Accordingly, any person exhibiting symptoms of the virus upon arrival in Syria will be quarantined in a public facility for a period of 14 days. Syrian citizens coming from any of the designated countries mentioned below who do not exhibit any symptoms of the virus will be compelled to self-isolate for a period of 14 days. For a period of one month, there will be no entry to foreign nationals coming from Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE, Kuwait, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Tunisia or Morocco. For a period of two months, there will be no entry to foreign nationals coming from China, Italy, Iran, South Korea, Spain, Germany, France, the US, Japan, Belgium, Australia, Norway, Denmark, Sweden or Finland. Any trucks entering or departing Syrian territory will be subjected to health screening. Any members of diplomatic missions or international organizations may enter Syria only after undergoing the required medical tests.
  • The Council of Ministers suspended visits and trips to countries that declared COVID-19 to be an epidemic within their borders for a period of two months and also mandated preventive quarantine for a period of 14 days for persons arriving from the said countries.
  • The Council of Ministers suspended visits and trips for individuals and groups to Iraq and Jordan from Syria, including for religious tourism purposes, for a period of one month, subject to renewal, as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19.
  • The Ministry of Interior announced the closure of all border crossings for persons arriving from Lebanon, including Syrian citizens, from March 23, 2020 until further notice. Freight trucks are exempted from the restriction but their drivers will be subjected to medical tests. The Syrian-Turkish border crossing at Kassab was also closed accordingly.
  • In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lebanon and Jordan closed their borders with Syria and the UAE announced the temporary suspension of flights between it, Syria and other countries.
  • Flights into and out of Syria have been temporarily suspended. With air transport services restricted and land border crossings across Syria shut to the movement of persons but not goods, the country is effectively closed.
  • The resolution to restrict the movement of persons between urban centers and rural areas within the same province to prevent the spread of COVID-19 has come into effect. Certain sectors are exempt from the decision, including health, industry, petroleum, food and supplies.
  • The Council of Ministers introduced a new measure to restrict the movement of persons between the provinces in addition to the earlier resolution to restrict movement within the provinces. The government issued restrictions on the movement of persons between the provinces as part of the precautionary measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Telecommunications

  • The National Network Services Authority is offering two investment opportunities to the private sector in the field of digital signatures and the duration of the licenses will be fixed for five years.

Media

  • Prime Minister Imad Khamis issued a circular granting press offices affiliated with the Ministry of Information administrative independence.
  • United Group for Publishing, Advertising and Marketing accused the state regulator the Arab Advertising Organization of breaching the relevant laws and regulations when it granted an investment license to Ella Media Services to advertise on road billboards previously held by it.
  • The Ministry of Information consulted with various media outlets and it was agreed that the printing of newspapers in paper form would be suspended for the time being as part of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Electronic media publications will however continue.
  • The Ministry of Interior warned against any rumors or fake news being spread regarding COVID-19 which cause fear and anxiety among the population. The Ministry will monitor publications on social media and elsewhere accordingly.

Employment

  • According to the Deputy Minister of Social Affairs and Labour, work in the private sector pursuant to the Employment Law continues as normal as it is for the employer to decide whether to maintain normal shifts under such exceptional circumstances.
  • The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour is attempting to prevent staff reductions in the private sector and reminding employers of their obligations to pay salaries or 50% of salaries to their employees under emergency conditions in accordance with Article 86 of the Employment Law.
  • The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour confirmed that it will prepare a database of individuals whose employment has been affected by the preventative measures taken against COVID-19 and grant them monetary support from the National Fund for Social Aid.
  • Following discussions between the new operator of Tartous Port Stroytransgaz and the union representing the port workers, it was agreed that the workers would not lose their status as public sector employees. Accordingly, they will benefit from the Public Sector Employment Law.

Education

  • The government suspended school and university classes as a precaution against COVID-19. All scientific, cultural, social and sporting events involving large gatherings have also been suspended.
  • The Ministry of Information will broadcast educational programs via television in an attempt to reach the largest number of students following the closure of schools in response to the risks posed by COVID-19.

Public Administration

  • According to the Financial Disclosure Bill, any public officials who illegally enrich themselves face at least five years in prison if convicted.

Parliament

  • President Bashar Al-Assad issued Decree 76/2020 originally setting Monday, April 13, 2020 as the date to hold parliamentary elections to the People’s Assembly. The elections will be the third since the Constitution of 2012 was adopted. However, as part of the precautionary measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, President Bashar Al-Assad issued Decree 86/2020 postponing parliamentary elections to the People’s Assembly from April 13th to May 20th. It is the second occurrence in modern times that parliamentary elections have been postponed, with the last time being in 2011 after the outbreak of civil unrest across the country. Elections to the People’s Assembly were eventually held in May 2012.
  • According to the Supreme Judicial Committee for Elections, the number of applicants who filed candidacy papers for the upcoming elections to the People’s Assembly reached 8,735.
  • The People’s Assembly postponed all of its parliamentary sessions until further notice in line with the precautionary measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Local Councils

  • MPs sparked controversy over a proposed amendment to Article 102 of the Local Administration Law that would grant immunity to local councilors. Some MPs argued that only the President of the Republic and MPs are entitled to immunity given that they operate at the national level.
  • Local councils are carrying out a disinfection campaign whereby they sterilize public and private establishments, streets, main squares, schools, places of worship, hospitals and so forth that are at risk of the spread of COVID-19.
  • Prime Minister Imad Khamis issued a resolution calling on governors in the provinces to activate the roles of neighborhood committees and relevant local officials in implementing the government’s response plan to COVID-19.

Baath Party

  • According to a source in the Baath Party, it was decided following complaints received by the leadership that all previous decisions would be frozen and the party branches would be reconfigured. The Baath Party eventually issued new lists of members for its party branches following primaries in February.

Military

  • President Bashar Al-Assad issued Legislative Decree 5/2020 granting an additional SYP 20,000 per month to the families of martyrs, missing persons and wounded personnel from the military and security forces.
  • Both the government and the military are instituting precautionary measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in ministries, public departments and the Armed Forces. The General Command of the Army and the Armed Forces suspended the conscription of soldiers as part of compulsory military service obligations until April 22nd in light of COVID-19 preventative measures.
  • The General Command of the Army and the Armed Forces implemented one of its most significant demobilizations to date since the war started.

Judiciary

  • The Ministry of Justice closed the courts and judicial departments as part of the precautionary measures taken at the national level to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Crime

  • President Bashar Al-Assad referred a bill abolishing honor killings to the People’s Assembly on International Women’s Day, which in turn submitted it to its Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee for consideration. MPs approved the bill, which repeals Article 548 of the Criminal Code and therefore abolishes legal recognition of honor killings. It was ratified by President Bashar Al-Assad in Law 2/2020.
  • President Bashar Al-Assad issued Legislative Decree 6/2020 granting a general amnesty for crimes committed before March 22, 2020.

International

  • Syria and China signed an economic and technical cooperation agreement which makes provision for the Chinese government to provide a grant to Syria to finance a range of humanitarian needs. The grant is worth approximately $14 million (US).
  • Gulf News reported that His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, discussed with President Bashar Al-Assad updates on COVID-19 and the support of the UAE to the Syrian people.
  • The Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry confirmed its interest in activating economic and trade agreements signed between Bahrain and Syria and called on Syrian businesspersons to increase their investments in Bahrain.
  • The Second Idlib Backstop arrangement was agreed between Russia and Turkey following the end of the first one concluded 18 months ago in September 2018. The new agreement recognizes the gains and position of Syrian forces up to six kilometers south of the M4 Highway. The First Idlib Backstop only recognized the position of Syrian forces up to the Hama-Idlib border. According to the Second Idlib Backstop, a security corridor will be established six kilometers north and six kilometers south of the M4. Syrian government forces are located to the south of the M4 while Turkish-backed fighters to the north. There will be joint Russian-Turkish patrols along the M4.
  • Syria agreed with the Libyan authorities operating under the leadership of General Khalifa Haftar to establish diplomatic relations and reopen the Syrian and Libyan embassies accordingly.
  • US President Donald Trump pleaded with the Syrian government to cooperate with the US to find the American journalist Austin Tice who went missing in Syria in August 2012.
  • A US State Department official asserted that the US will begin implementing the Caesar Act against Syria within weeks according to its provisions. The Act mandates actions by the US President six months after it was enacted, which means that measures should be introduced in June.