Legal Briefing – March 2021
On March 15, 2021, Syria not only marked a decade of conflict but of contrition. In 2011, romanticized delusions combined with unenviable audacity flipped a peaceful way of life upside down, aroused the grim hardships of war on an untested population, and set the country back ages.
The Presidential Palace in Damascus announced on March 8th that President Bashar Al-Assad and First Lady Asma Al-Assad tested positive for Covid following their PCR tests and were experiencing mild symptoms. In line with the standard health protocol, they quarantined for a period of two to three weeks. The Presidential Palace subsequently reported on March 30th that following the end of the quarantine period and the subsiding of symptoms, they both tested negative for Covid.
It was reported that Syria received one million doses of the Covid AstraZeneca vaccine according to the World Health Organisation.
On March 18th, the Ministry of Health announced the transfer of a number of Covid patients in need of intensive care treatment from Damascus to other provinces after hospitals in the capital filled up to the maximum as a result of increased infections and overcrowding.
President Bashar Al-Assad directed the Ministry of Health to supply Lebanon with 75 tons of oxygen due to shortages caused by stockpiling in anticipation of Covid infections. Syria faced similar problems as well due to increased demand for oxygen cylinders during the pandemic.
As the Syrian Pound closed in on SYP 4,000 to the US Dollar, several foreign exchange bureaus were reportedly sanctioned, while the Money Laundering Commission will monitor transfers on the parallel market and the Central Bank will collect the $5 million sent per day from abroad. The closure of many foreign exchange and money transfer bureaus in Syria was anticipated to reduce the amount of cash in the markets, thereby allowing the Central Bank to control the money supply and prop up the Syrian Pound, pulling it away from touching the SYP 4,000 mark.
Reports suggested that with the Central Bank directly supervising remittances from overseas, money transfer companies were abiding by the official exchange rate of the Syrian Pound, thereby delivering a third of the unofficial value of money transfers to beneficiaries in Syria.
Following the reported sanctioning of numerous money transfer companies for dealing in the unofficial rate and currency speculation, only a handful will continue to operate for the time being while the Central Bank was expected to start pumping US Dollars into the markets.
While remittances from overseas are being processed through informal networks to benefit from the unofficial rate, the capital controls seek to slow down currency depreciation that would otherwise happen abruptly if such measures were lifted by people rushing to buy US Dollars.
It was reported that money transfers between Syrian provinces in excess of SYP 1 million were stopped and the balance must be remitted through banking channels while the transport of more than SYP 5 million in one motor vehicle between the provinces risks sequestration and fines.
Obliging transferors and transferees to resort to official banking channels to process remittances of funds increases financial oversight and control over the money supply in the markets while identifying potential speculators with the objective to deter currency manipulations.
The Syrian Pound appreciated in value due to controls on bank withdrawals, internal transfers and the movement of local currency around the country to curb purchases of US Dollars while dealers in foreign exchange were reprimanded and import licenses subjected to restrictions.
Contracts for sales of residential and commercial properties and for sales of cars will not reportedly be executed unless a minimum of SYP 5 million is deposited into the seller’s bank account and SYP 500,000 is frozen for at least three months while the balance may be withdrawn.
On March 13th, the unofficial rate of the Syrian Pound crossed the SYP 4,000 to the US Dollar mark. After 10 years of war to the day almost, the Syrian currency depreciated in value by approximately 85 times from SYP 47 to the US Dollar on March 15, 2011.
On March 16th, the unofficial rate of the Syrian Pound depreciated further days after reaching SYP 4,000 to the US Dollar, crossed the SYP 4,500 to the US Dollar mark, and even touched the SYP 4,650 to the US Dollar threshold.
The unofficial rate of the Syrian Pound briefly touched the SYP 4,700 to the US Dollar mark on March 17th. In March 2011, the Syrian Pound began to depreciate from SYP 47 to the US Dollar, meaning the entire devaluation of the local currency in 10 years amounted to 100 times.
As of March 23rd, the unofficial rate of the Syrian Pound dropped from its highest point of approximately SYP 4,700 to the US Dollar a week earlier and hovered around the SYP 4,000 to the US Dollar mark.
After the Central Bank instituted several capital controls and reportedly pumped US Dollars into the foreign exchange markets and created demand for the Syrian Pound, the local currency appreciated to SYP 3,700 to the US Dollar by the start of the day on March 27th and increased in value all the way to SYP 3,100.
The Central Bank raised the preferential foreign exchange rate for international organizations to receive remittances to SYP 2,500 per US Dollar only days before the unofficial rate of the Syrian Pound appreciated to SYP 3,100 to the US Dollar.
By March 31st, the unofficial rate of the Syrian Pound hit the SYP 3,500 to the US Dollar mark, capping off a month of erratic fluctuations, which started with a US Dollar value of SYP 3,700 that reached as high as SYP 4,700 before a raft of measures disrupted its trajectory.
Following his recovery from Covid, President Bashar Al-Assad addressed the Council of Ministers, likening the currency crisis to a battle that requires backing for the institutions of state. While he understood that currency devaluation may justify an increase in prices over long periods of weeks and months, hiking prices on an hourly basis is wholly unjustifiable. He labelled any merchant who exploits and profits from the currency crisis a thief who will be punished. He called on the government to properly communicate the fuel crisis and solutions to citizens while encouraging the latter to provide their input. He foresaw that the e-government program and the automation of all public services will be essential factors to promote transparency.
Borrowers who apply for automobile loans from microfinance banks to purchase motor vehicles will be exempt from the administrative fees to register the car as collateral in favor of the microfinance bank creditor in the event of default by the debtor when repaying by installments.
The People’s Assembly approved the new Real Estate Sales Bill, which imposes a sales tax on the actual market value of a property as opposed to outdated and diminished figures from the 1980s. Property appraisals will be organized by government committees and reflect current rates.
A one percent tax will be imposed on sales of residential properties, two percent on sales of lands in zoned areas, one percent on sales of lands outside zoned areas, three percent on sales of non-residential properties, and one percent on sales of residential roof properties.
Taxpayers who object to the levy may formally do so within a 30-day period provided that they first pay the tax and a deposit amounting to one percent of the taxable amount, which are refundable if the objection is upheld by the Council of State Administrative Court.
Non-residential properties leased to Syrians and foreign nationals are subject to an income tax of 10% of the annual rent while residential properties leased to Syrians and foreign nationals are subject to an income tax of five percent of the annual rent.
President Bashar Al-Assad subsequently ratified the Bill as the Real Estate Sales Tax Law 15/2021, which will come into force on May 3, 2021. It is comprised of 21 articles and its executive regulations will be issued by the Minister of Finance.
The huge container vessel that blocked the Suez Canal affected the shipment of goods to Syria coming from Asia. Syria’s location at the crossroads of three continents meant that trade with Europe and north Africa, albeit already limited by sanctions, was not hindered.
The bottleneck at the Suez Canal was just another contributor to supply chain disruptions in Syria. Foreign sanctions, the Lebanese financial crisis, the coronavirus pandemic, and Syria’s own internal import controls to safeguard foreign exchange are all preexisting conditions.
The Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources announced that it was rationing the distribution of available quantities of diesel and gasoline due to reported shortages caused by delayed oil shipments, which were affected by the blocking of the Suez Canal.
According to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour, the Syrian population has abandoned 80% of their clothing needs, thus threatening the industry with closures and bankruptcies due to a lack of customers.
The state-owned chemical detergents company ceased production due to a lack of raw materials after suppliers stopped participating in public tenders due to price fluctuations. Suppliers were paid several days after delivery, by which time prices had increased. Daily limits on bank withdrawals caused payment delays. Furthermore, the public sector company was not allowed to directly purchase raw materials in excess of SYP 3 million without resorting to certain tender procedures when in reality a ceiling of SYP 25 million would suffice.
Prime Minister Hussein Arnous ratified the sale by the Commercial Bank of Kuwait of 22% of its shares in Cham Bank to another Kuwaiti company while the former will retain 10% share ownership in Cham Bank.
Prime Minister Hussein Arnous approved the transaction by Banque Bemo Saudi Fransi to purchase approximately 49% of Al-Ahli Trust Bank, which was previously known as Bank Audi – Syria. The share purchase agreement that spurred the exit of Bank Audi – Lebanon from the Syrian market was first approved by the Council of Ministers and ratified by the Monetary and Credit Council, the governing authority of the Central Bank. Banque Bemo Saudi Fransi formally purchased 27,634,443 shares in Al-Ahli Trust Bank according to the Significant Transaction Rules issued by the Damascus Securities Exchange, which regulate private stock purchases away from the public stock market.
The People’s Assembly approved the new Investment Bill, which will replace the current law provided for in Legislative Decree 8/2007. The new Bill is comprehensive and includes most economic sectors, including the tourism industry. It will provide tax and financial incentives.
It provides for disputes to be resolved by an independent arbitration center affiliated to the Federation of Syrian Chambers of Commerce with specialist expertise in adjudicating civil and commercial investment lawsuits.
It also seeks to close previous loopholes encountered by investors, shorten the duration for licensing procedures, mandate a wider range of incentives, and provide more guarantees for investment projects.
Experts argue that the new Investment Bill differs from the outgoing Law in that it mandates the creation of special economic zones which offer more advantages, but what matters is confidence in the economy and the banking sector, support for investment funds and speedy licensing.
Work commenced on the privately owned Emesa Hills mixed use real estate project in the province of Homs, which will be developed in four phases lasting 16 years in total. It will comprise 96 hectares and contain 5,300 residential units.
Four or five basic contractors are working in Marota City obtaining cash payments or rights to ownership directly from the multiple landholders due to exchange rate fluctuations while sanctions hinder the importation of raw materials, spare parts and drilling equipment.
The Local Finance Bill, which budgets financing for local councils throughout the country, includes a provision to reduce building permit fees from two percent to one percent of the price per square meter of a property following a general increase in real estate prices.
Fuel prices in Syria have risen by approximately 50% due to shortages in the market caused by delivery delays, sanctions, a lack of foreign exchange and US/ SDF control over oil fields, which cause inflation across other economic sectors. Oil sector losses total $91.5 billion.
A local newspaper reported the signing of an oil exploration and production contract between the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources and a Russian company covering an area of 2,250 square kilometers off the coast of Tartous for a renewable period of 29 years.
Syrian businessman Ayman Asfari reportedly sold his share in Gulfsands Petroleum to an investment firm. Gulfsands Petroleum had a working interest in Block 26, located in northeast Syria but presently outside of government control.
The People’s Assembly approved the Ride-Sharing Bill to permit owners of private cars and minibuses, via companies licensed by the Ministry of Transport, to utilize mobile technology applications for Uber-style services supervised by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority.
The ride-sharing company that owns the “Move It Syria” brand obtained a preliminary license to operate in Syria though it must receive final approvals from the Ministry of Transport and the National Network Services Authority affiliated to the Ministry of Communications and Technology.
There are presently two ride-sharing applications being utilized in Syria but the Ministry of Transport recently confirmed that they are operating unlawfully and will have to adjust their status in line with the new legislation.
The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority announced a moratorium on customs duties imposed on mobile phones for a renewable period of six months starting on March 18th. The Ministry of Economy and Foreign Trade subsequently halted all imports of mobile phone devices of all kinds, including the granting of import licenses thereof, until further notice. Import controls are usually imposed to curb demand for foreign exchange to protect the local currency.
Brand merchants are reportedly registering trademarks in demand by investors for up to SYP 250,000 and then selling them to the latter at exorbitant prices that exceed SYP 10 million. Attempts to register distinguished international brands are however blocked by legislation.
President Bashar Al-Assad issued Legislative Decree 2/2021 authorizing two grants of SYP 50,000 to civilian and military personnel in the public sector and state entities, and SYP 40,000 to the respective pensioners, with both disbursements exempt from taxes.
The disbursements are intended to alleviate some pressures on households in light of ongoing inflation caused by the depreciation of the Syrian Pound but they inadvertently add to the money supply in the markets, thereby contributing to the devaluation albeit to a limited extent.
Following its passage by the People’s Assembly, President Bashar Al-Assad ratified the new Civil Status Law 13/2021, which replaces Legislative Decree 26/2007. It provides for an electronic compilation of personal data pertaining to the civil status of citizens, expatriates and residents along with their national numbers.
The digital nature of the Civil Registry database means that the national numbers of citizens and residents will result in less chances of mistaken identities due to similar names and the ability to submit recordable data at any respective center in Syria wherever convenient.
Syrian citizens are no longer required to return to their home province to file registration papers or request services from the Civil Registry but rather can visit any such center nearest to them to carry out such procedures, which is a stark departure from previous practices. Following the conflict, it has become impractical and costly for many citizens to travel to their home provinces for such administrative processes.
Information relating to births, deaths, marriages, divorces, etc. whether in Syria or abroad are recorded, and subject to consular attestation and religious confirmation if overseas. Marriages abroad must comply with the respective foreign law but not conflict with Syrian law.
Marriages between Syrian nationals and foreign citizens may only be validly registered if the consent of the Ministry of Interior is granted. Once recorded, married couples are issued a family book to note all events affecting their civil status, including births and deaths.
Individuals born to Syrian fathers should be registered accordingly at the Civil Registry in order to have their Syrian nationality confirmed, which makes it easier for them to inherit real estate property. Child registration is conditional upon registration of the underlying marriage.
Families of Syrian expatriates will be entitled to register marriages, divorces, births and deaths in the Civil Registry, and extract the private documents of the said expatriates without attesting the certificates at the Syrian consulate overseas and without a power of attorney.
Syrian citizens become eligible for personal identity cards at the age of 14. According to Article 54, identity cards are valid for a period of 10 years and they shall be replaced not less than 30 days and not more than six months prior to their expiry date, but their validity may be extended due to a force majeure event.
The Third Criminal Court in Damascus specialized in adjudicating economic crimes are trying the largest cases on record against public sector employees who colluded with private sector merchants to embezzle public funds and launder the money overseas through shell companies.
The indictments filed by the Financial Prosecutor allege that the employees forged contracts, cheques and other documents in cooperation with merchants in violation of the Economic Criminal Code. The funds embezzled amount to SYP 1.8 billion.
Such felonies fall under the jurisdiction of the Economic Criminal Court established in 2015 while misdemeanors are tried by the ordinary criminal courts.