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What’s the Story of the Syrian Deposits in Lebanon?

Last week, Syrian President Bashar Assad blamed his country’s deteriorating economic situation on Lebanon by claiming that some $40 billion to $60 billion deposited by Syrian citizens in Lebanese bank accounts have been tied up. The accusation begs the question: Is it true that Syrian citizens hold such large deposits in Lebanon? A look at the data might reveal a different picture than the one painted by the Syrian regime. First, the total volume of deposits made by nonresidents in Lebanese banks before the financial crisis didn’t exceed $28 billion. Furthermore, Lebanese expatriates, who preferred to register their accounts under the nonresident category, have made a large portion of these deposits. Second, a look at the breakdown of nationalities to which these accounts belong reveals that the vast majority of them belong to individuals with Gulf and Iraqi passports, not Syrian ones. Finally, of those foreign accounts that do belong to Syrian nationals, it would be fair to assume that not all belong to regime officials. Indeed, the accounts are likely divided between Syrian citizens who opposed the Assad regime and therefore took their money outside of Syria with the onset of the civil war, and those who are associated with the regime who wanted to store their money in Lebanon for safety purposes. However, following the outbreak of Syrian war, the United States put the Central Bank of Syria on its blacklist, in addition to a number of Syrian figures affiliated with the regime. After it became clear that banks in Lebanon were committed to complying with the American sanctions, many of the accounts in the latter category were shut down, and the money stored in them was withdrawn. Therefore, there is no doubt that the Syrian accounts Assad spoke about actually belong to wealthy Syrian individuals who do not support the Assad regime and will therefore refuse to invest in Syria today. Indeed, most of them have chosen to target their investments in other countries, including Egypt and Turkey. Accordingly, it can be estimated that the Syrian money remaining in Lebanese bank accounts is far smaller than the amount cited by Assad and likely doesn’t exceed $5 billion. Any other allegation is simply baseless and untrue. –Antoine Farah (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)