Syria’s Central Bank announced this weekend that it was introducing a new banknote – a 2,000-pound bill worth roughly $4 – because of “wear and tear” on the currency already in circulation. Noted in state media’s coverage of the new note, however, is an important design detail: For the first time, a portrait of President Bashar Assad is being featured on Syrian money.
Assad has been president of Syria since 2000, when he succeeded his father, Hafez al-Assad. Trained as an ophthalmologist, Bashar Assad was initially seen as a potential reformer. However, he has since been accused of human rights violations. Since 2011, Syria has been locked in a brutal and intractable conflict.
In the past, Syria’s banknotes have tended to feature Hafez Assad or historical figures or sites. The portraits on the banknotes have attracted considerable attention in the past, given their political implications. In 2015, pro-government social media accounts urged a boycott of a new 1,000-pound bill after an image of Hafez Assad was removed from it.
The introduction of the new 2,000-pound bill might seem to suggest economic weakness. The note is the highest denomination yet for the Syrian pound, a recognition that since the conflict in the country began, the value of the Syrian currency has dropped from about 47 pounds to the dollar in 2011 to more than 500 pounds to the dollar this year. Many Syrians quickly found that their hard-earned savings were being rendered worthless, with the threat that hyperinflation could soon make things even worse.
Yet counterintuitively, the government portrayed the new bill as a sign of stabilization. According to the official Syrian Arab News Agency, the Central Bank governor, Duraid Dergham, told reporters on Sunday that the plan for the 2,000-pound bill had actually been approved years ago but implemented only recently after exchange-rate fluctuations slowed down. Dergham also said that there was “no need to panic” that the bill could worsen the inflation.
Steve Hanke, an economist at Johns Hopkins University who has closely followed Syrian inflation over the years, noted last month in a Tweet that the relatively stable pound suggested that Assad was in “control” of the country and its economy:
“The fog of war becomes thicker in Syria, but pound remains stable. Assad in ‘control’ ”
Much of this economic stabilization has come over the past year, as the government made considerable gains in the war with the backing of its Russian and Iranian military partners and key economic areas such as Aleppo returned to government control.
Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies, said the decision to feature Assad on the new note was important, too. “Bashar presented himself as the humble and shy Assad when he first came to power,” Landis wrote in an email. “He didn’t drive around in a Mercedes car, preferring an Audi. He often escaped his bodyguards and liked to walk around among the people.”
But after years of civil war, Landis wrote, “Assad has reverted to type. He can no longer be seen as the kinder-gentler Assad. He also needs to reassert the authority of the state – which is him. What better way to do it than by putting his face on a new bill.”
With the Syrian government soon to enter another round of peace talks and Assad still facing calls to step down, the new note sends a message about how he sees the country’s future. “By putting his face on the new bill, Assad is putting his mark on the new Syria,” Landis said. “It is a promise, of sorts, to rebuild.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Adam Taylor