Money changers said that influx of foreign currency earlier this month helped push the pound’s black market rate in the impoverished town up by at least 10 percent.
Hundreds of kilometers away in Damascus, panicked Syrians bracing for more violence sold pounds for dollars, driving the pound, which has lost half its value since the anti-Assad uprising erupted in March last year, the other way.
The events at opposite ends of the country illustrate the contrasting pressures on a currency whose sharp decline has been cushioned by factors including central bank intervention, flows of cash from Assad’s friends and foes abroad, and even long term hopes for a wave of foreign investment if Assad were to fall.
By comparison, Iran, Assad’s staunchest regional ally, has seen its own currency fall more sharply than Syria’s, losing about two-thirds of its value since June 2011 because of Western sanctions imposed over Tehran’s disputed nuclear program.
Damascus-based currency dealer Abdullah Abu Saloum, who also has an office in Deir al-Zor, said the rebel fighter’s cash was one of many anomalies affecting Syria’s foreign exchange market.
“There was a large quantity of dollars that were offered for sale at an attractive price,” he said, adding ruefully that he was not able to capitalize on the opportunity because the ongoing violence, which has killed more than 40,000 people, prevented him transferring pounds from Damascus to Deir al-Zor.
“When problems grow, people decide to buy dollars, not sell dollars, but this is what Syria’s conflict is producing -- all types of distortions and contradictions.”
The pound is trading at 94 to the dollar on the black market compared to 48 before the uprising - a steep fall but less calamitous than might be expected given the devastating loss of state revenues and long term damage wrought by the conflict.
It hit a record low of 105 to the dollar earlier this year before recovering slightly, even allowing the central bank to recoup some losses from its heavy intervention by buying back dollars as they eased slightly, bankers say.
A banker in a Damascus-based subsidiary of a regional bank said cash flows to the Deir al-Zor rebel commander and his comrades were partly responsible for the pound's resilience.
“All the money sent to the opposition comes in foreign currency and this is supplying the market with dollars and keeping the pound afloat,” he said.
Assad’s foreign backers have also helped.
“The only logical explanation why the regime is able to defend the pound ... is the aid it is primarily getting from Iran,” said Samir Seifan, a prominent Syrian economist living abroad, adding that Russia and Iraq were also providing support.
Iraq’s Shi’ite government has “opened its trade, helping the country get foreign currency,” he said. Baghdad has given preferential access to Syrian exports since the crisis, making it Syria’s main trading partner as Gulf and Turkish flows dry up.