The Syrian regime is coming under rare criticism from its own supporters for steep currency falls, prompting Bashar Al Assad to revive Soviet-inspired laws against undermining confidence in the economy.
Mr Al Assad on Sunday issued a decree raising fines against relaying “made-up facts or false speculations” that “lower or destabilise” the Syrian pound. The offence is punishable by unspecified jail terms.
Another decree more than doubled jail terms to seven years for using the dollar, or other foreign currency, instead of the pound.
The same laws had justified arbitrary arrests for so-called economic crimes under the rule of his father, Hafez Al Assad, when the pound collapsed in the 1980s.
The pound has been falling since the uprising against five decades of Mr Al Assad family rule began in 2011 and the ensuing civil war.
The currency was trading at 50 pounds to the dollar on the eve of the uprising in March of that year, compared with 1,200 pounds to the dollar on Sunday.
A deepening financial crisis in Lebanon and increased US sanctions against the regime in December under the Caesar Act triggered the latest bout of pressure on the pound.
The Syrian currency was trading at 630 pounds to the dollar before capital controls were imposed in Lebanon in October, depriving Syrian regime areas of a main source of dollars.
Financial pressures in the last few weeks have been accompanied by criticism among Mr Al Assad’s supporters against the official line on the economy, which promises reconstruction while ignoring deteriorating living standards.
The most high profile target of this criticism has been Bouthaina Shaaban, a presidential adviser and the face of the regime on outside media.
In late December, she said on Al Mayadeen, a Lebanese station supportive of Mr Al Assad and of Hezbollah, that Syria’s economic situation is “50 times better than 2011”.
“I have met with officials in charge of the economy and they told me that the economy today is 50 times better than 2011,” she said.
“There is work underway in agriculture, industry, installations and institutions. There is strong work,” she told the channel.
Among those who criticised her on social media was Noureddin Mona, a former Syrian agriculture minister.
Mr Mona termed her assessment “shocking and surprising”, and “difficult for a homeland that has been bleeding for 8 and a half years to accept”.
The Facebook posts were compiled by Ayman Abdel Nour, a Syrian political commentator who tracks regime media.
Another regime supporter, Rim Arnouk, a physician, ridiculed Shabaan’s assertion, pointing to her husband’s salary. Mrs Arnouk said it is now equivalent to $40 a month compared with $500 in 2011.
Sadek Abbara, a Syrian activist living in exile in Germany, said the new decrees are meant to silence the criticism, which indirectly touches upon Mr Al Assad, although those criticising the economy among his constituency have been careful to highlight their praise for the president.
“Shaaban was just repeating what her boss has been saying,” Mr Abbara said. “Assad has been asserting that the situation on all fronts is much better than 2011, now that the country has been cleansed from its undesirables.”
Mr Abbara said that as long as the security apparatus, dominated by Mr Al Assad’s Alawite sect is loyal to Mr Al Assad, and his associates benefit from the war economy, he possesses the tools and resources to quash criticism.
The official Syrian state news agency, Sana, said Interior Minister Mohammad Al Rahmoun told senior security officers in a meeting on Sunday that they should “monitor and follow social media".
The interior minister said the action was necessary because “false and fabricated news are broadcast” through social media to “cause a drop in the value of the national currency”, adding that the “violators” will be apprehended.
For Mr Al Assad, Mr Abbara said, “the rest of the country can go to hell".