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With a new banknote, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad tells everyone he’s here to stay

This is the first time in his 17-year rule that Assad is appearing on a Syrian banknote.

A picture of Syria’s new banknote
The new banknote is valued at 2,000 Syrian pounds — the highest denomination in the currency
SANA via Associated Press

Syria released a new banknote featuring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s portrait over the weekend, and there are already several theories as to what this might mean for the ongoing civil war between Assad’s government and domestic opposition forces.

Some experts, such as Joshua Landis, a Syria scholar from the University of Oklahoma, believe the introduction of Assad’s face on Syrian currency for the first time in his 17-year rule is a not-so-subtle assertion of his strength over the country.

But others, particularly the poor living in Syria, are more preoccupied with the value of the new banknote (2,000 pounds — the highest denomination for the currency) and what it suggests for Syria’s economy.

Valued at 2,000 Syrian pounds (approximately $4 USD), the new banknote will replace the 1,000-pound banknote as the highest denomination in Syrian currency. The introduction of the note could be read as a reflection of the country’s weakening economy, wrote the Washington Post.

Since 2011, the Syrian currency has gone from 47 pounds to the dollar to more than 500 pounds to the dollar. This means the Syrian pound is now worth less than one-tenth of what it was worth before the civil war started six years ago. The currency’s plummeting value means Syrians have had to go shopping with thick bundles of notes.

Upping the highest denomination of the Syrian currency would be one way to address the weakening Syrian pound, but the government has gone out of its way to deny this.

Syrian Central Bank governor Duraid Dergham said on Sunday that the government had been printing 2,000-pound notes for years, but only decided to release them now after the exchange rate had stabilized. If the note had been released earlier, “it would have been understood as a sign that the nation is not well and that the situation is in crisis and unstable,” Dergham said.

He added that there’s “no need to panic” that the new bank note will worsen the inflation rate, which was a whopping 52 percent in July 2016. (Just for scale, the US inflation rate for the same period was 0.8 percent.)

Assad’s serious-looking portrait on the new banknote is also raising eyebrows.

Landis, who is the director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies, told the Washington Post that the banknote reads like a declaration of Assad’s new approach to his rule. Once thought of as a reformer, the Syrian president has now made clear his intentions as an authoritarian after six years of brutal civil war.

“Assad has reverted to type,” Landis said. “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?”

Even though the Assad regime has made significant military gains in recent months, calls for the president to step down have persisted. This new banknote featuring his profile might be Assad’s rather unsubtle way of telling his political opponents, and the many international players who have been brought into the conflict, that he’s here to stay.