Legal Briefing- Up to End of March 2017

Taxation

  • The Council of Ministers approved the new Real Estate Sales Tax Bill to tax real property sellers on actual market prices rather than outdated property valuations. The sales tax is expected to be one percent of the property’s actual value. Provincial committees were subsequently set up and tasked by the Ministry of Finance to assess real estate market valuations in their respective areas in preparation for the passage of the new Real Estate Sales Tax Bill. The new market valuation records will be used for a variety of purposes, not just for calculating real estate sales taxes.
  • The Council of Ministers approved a bill exempting licensed industrial businesses from paying customs duties and import tariffs on imported machinery and equipment. A parliamentary source indicated that imports of new machines for factories will be free of customs duties and import tariffs for a period of one year.
  • The Customs Directorate came under the spotlight as the new Customs Bill seeks to combat the phenomenon of corruption and impose stronger oversight controls over the process. A study is underway to determine whether a watchdog can be established within the Customs Directorate to monitor activities and combat corruption.
  • It appears that judges in the Customs Court have apparently not seen the Customs Bill. Rather, a judge in the Court of Cassation was assigned by the Ministry of Justice to review amendments and proposals to the Customs Bill. Moreover, the Economic Committee linked to the Council of Ministers discussed the new Customs Bill. Meanwhile, customs officials expressed reservations on the 300-article Customs Bill on issues relating to unifying employment regulations and extra oversight. The extra oversight is related to the proposed establishment of a special monitoring system at the Customs Directorate. Discussions also centered around customs duties on smuggled goods being imposed either on the date of their detection or the date when violations were settled.
  • Importers in Syria continue to make advance payments of income tax on goods imported to realize business profits to the Customs Directorate. The Customs Directorate then forwards it on to the General Commission for Taxes and Fees (GCTF). The requirement to make advance payments to the Customs Directorate stems from efforts to combat tax evasion by importers when trading in their goods. At the end of the tax year, the importer submits all the tax returns with the declaration of profit. As a result, there might be a balance to pay on income tax for the goods imported for trading purposes due to increased profits realized from the sale of the goods. The importer calculates the final profit, submits the tax return and pays the balance on the imported goods, which he or she sold for a profit, to the GCTF. The tax returns must be prepared by an internal auditor before being certified by a chartered accountant and sent off to the GCTF to be audited. The GCTF then examines the tax returns and calculates them according to its own formulas, which might take years due to the conflict. The GCTF may then write to the taxpayer years later to inform them that they have to pay more tax due to a discovered miscalculation. The taxpayer will then have to pay the extra amount in addition to the fines and interest dues for late payment if no exemption was issued by the government during those years. The fines and interest payments correspond to each year that there was not an exemption law. Meanwhile, taxpayers remain baffled as to why they should be fined for each year that passed if the GCTF took years to discover the miscalculation. In response, the GCTF would counter that the taxpayer should have calculated the taxable amount correctly in the first place. With the depreciation of the Syrian Pound during the conflict, the fines and interest payments may be nominal for the more well-off merchants.
  • The Minister of Finance admitted that tax laws have proven controversial and the General Commission for Taxes and Fees (GCTF) could be dismantled. He had recently complained to the GCTF about the need to fight corruption, which has led to lost public revenues from tax evasion. He further stated that reform to the Tax Code is undergoing but not easy due to overlapping legislation on certain issues. Fixed lump-sum income tax solutions could prove helpful in mitigating tax evasion as it removes the human element in determining tax liability. However, under the current circumstances, it may be difficult to implement a unified taxation system in Syria. Such a system has been proposed for more than 25 years but to no avail. Moreover, taxation courts established along similar lines as banking courts and insurance courts could prove helpful in combating tax evasion.
  • The Minister of Finance said that there is a tendency to consider exempting some industrialists, whose factories have been damaged, from taxes. He further noted that the revenues collected by the state do not exceed 15% of the size of the tax.
  • 35,000 taxpayers were exempted from paying fixed lump-sum income tax in conflict areas, mostly in Damascus and Aleppo.
  • MPs discussed a bill amending provisions of the Consumption Tax Law to exempt locally-produced goods from consumption taxes when they are exported abroad.

Finance

  • The Syrian Commission on Financial Markets and Securities announced that the Central Bank had given preliminary approval for the Bemo Saudi Fransi Bank based in Syria to purchase a 45% stake in Syria Gulf Bank but the deal fell through in the end.
  • The Ministry of Finance froze the assets and bank accounts of major debtors who owe money to public banks but have failed to repay their loans.
  • The Ministry of Finance obtained a freezing order on the assets owned by 60 large investors for debts they owed to Syria’s state-owned banks.
  • The state-owned Industrial Bank successfully obtained orders imposing travel bans on 6,150 debtors who failed to pay back their loans.
  • A parliamentary source indicated that the Foreign Exchange Companies Law will be affected by several amendments. The amendments were being studied in detail by the relevant parliamentary committee.
  • The Monetary and Credit Council revoked the license of a foreign exchange company for failing to abide by the price bulletin issued by the Central Bank.

Insurance

  • A recent government decision provided for an increase in the share of the compulsory motor vehicles insurance policies by the state-owned insurance provider.
  • The Syrian insurance industry is trying to find solutions to fraudulent claims on insurance policies derived from deliberate “accidents”.
  • A special committee sent health insurance proposals to the government for deliberations.
  • The Council of Ministers approved a bill permitting retired civilian employees at the Ministry of Defence and the Armed Forces to become enrolled in the Health Insurance Fund.

Commerce

  • The Ministry of Economy and Foreign Trade was considering expanding the list of permissible imports.
  • The Minister of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection discussed with interested parties the Executive Regulations of Decision 377, which reserves 15% of imports to the benefit of the state-owned Syrian Trading Establishment. The discussions surrounded how to implement the Executive Regulations. The prices of the Syrian Trading Establishment are around 20% to 40% lower than market rates.
  • The Council of Ministers approved a memo from the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection, which imposes stricter penalties and fines for infringements, monopolies, and the manipulation of prices.
  • There were questions surrounding the importation of energy drinks, whether they are allowed and what health hazards they may pose. Subsequently, the Ministry of Economy and Foreign Trade denied granting import licenses for energy drinks.
  • The Council of Ministers called on the Ministry of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection to regulate the visits of consumer protection observers to shops and markets.
  • The Ministry of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection in cooperation with the Ministry of Justice recovered 57 goods outlets invested in by the private sector.
  • The Ministry of Economy and Foreign Trade approved a license for the Syrian Trading Establishment to import a thousand tons of frozen meat.
  • The Deputy Minister of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection denied that there were imports of olive oil.

Companies

  • The Minister of Finance called for a legislative review to facilitate and encourage the incorporation of more joint stock companies during the reconstruction period. The incorporation of such companies will facilitate greater access to financing and thus more investments in various sectors of the economy. The Minister also stressed the importance of establishing more real estate companies to play a bigger role in the reconstruction phase.
  • The Governorate of Homs announced plans for the incorporation of a holding company.

Industry

  • The Prime Minister issued new conditions for the licensing of industrial facilities.
  • The Council of Ministers extended the duration of a decision to grant temporary licenses for establishing industrial facilities by one year.

Investments

  • The Ministry of Economy and Foreign Trade organized an introductory symposium on the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) Law at the University of Damascus where a detailed explanation on the general concepts and contractual terms according to the PPP Law were presented. During a seminar, the Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade predicted that the PPP Law would serve to stimulate investments in Syria. The focus of the symposium was on joint projects between the public and private sectors, particularly services and infrastructure projects, and the rights of workers. The Minister stressed the government’s keenness on activating cooperation between the public and private sectors and launching joint projects. He said that the Law will make significant changes to investments in Syria along with economic privileges and benefits. The restructuring of some public sector entities in order to improve their performance and to work alongside the private sector are considered necessary steps. The Law is not regarded at all as a policy driven towards privatization. The Minister noted that PPP does not mean the privatization of state-owned entities but rather a new means to develop important projects. The Minister underlined the private sector’s role as a partner in protecting and developing the national economy, and contributing to the reconstruction of Syria. In this respect, a fair balance and allocation of risk is seen as a key objective in implementing PPP projects according to the Law. Numerous projects were considered for execution on a PPP basis when the first draft of the PPP Bill was completed in 2010. The Law was enacted in early 2016 but the Executive Regulations came into force in February 2017.
  • During an investment conference in Hama, the Minister of State for Investments claimed that work is ongoing to develop a comprehensive investment law.
  • The Council of Ministers approved a bill on exempting investors in the Adra Free Zone from overdue fees and fines.

Construction

  • According to the Minister of Public Works and Housing, 15% of government projects are awarded to private contractors who are classified accordingly for the required works.
  • New work opportunities and compensation for inflation were among the biggest demands of contractors during their annual syndicate meeting in Lattakia.

Property

  • According to a judge in the Real Estate Court, 70% of property documents were destroyed during the conflict and as a result, a new law dealing with this issue is expected to be issued.
  • The Council of Ministers tasked ministries with forming working groups to study the situation of leased government-owned real estate and reevaluate the current lease agreements.
  • The Council of Ministers considered creating a body to manage and invest the real estate assets belonging to the government rather than leaving the task to each individual Ministry.

Energy

  • The Council of Ministers charged the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources with ratifying contracts for the extraction of mineral resources with the private and joint public-private sectors.
  • The Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources considered lifting subsidies on diesel bound for the private sector.

Employment

  • The Prime Minister issued the Executive Regulations of the Temporary Employees Law provided for in Legislative Decree 4/2017. The Law offers fixed-term contracts to temporary employees employed in the public sector who are related to martyrs of the Syrian conflict, those who later became relatives of martyrs and to those within the Youth Employment Program who are already employed on one-year contractual terms. Work on pushing forward the Youth Employment Program is ongoing. The decisions offering such fixed-term contracts are to be made by the concerned Ministers with the specific period starting from the date of issuance of the Law.
  • The Minister of Social Affairs and Labour confirmed that work is ongoing to amend provisions of the Public Employment Law. Some changes include items related to scientific certificates and maternity leave for women depending on how many children they have.
  • The Minister of Social Affairs and Labour confirmed that the Living Wage Bill is in the final stages of consultations before being enacted.
  • The Minister of Social Affairs and Labour noted that the Ministry is reviewing legislation to protect workers’ rights in the run-up to reconstruction.
  • A regulation to further govern the process by which women work in public sector facilities is expected to be issued for their benefit.
  • The General Establishment for Social Security issued instructions on contributions by employees and the share of contributions of employers.
  • The People’s Assembly deliberated on a bill extending the provisions of Law 4/2016, which exempts business owners who subscribe to the General Establishment for Social Security from interest and additional payments.
  • A proposal was put forward to include customs officers in the legislation governing employees in the Customs Directorate.

Health

  • The Ministry of Health raised pharmaceutical prices in February, which in some cases reached 400% but it was described as a correction of market prices.
  • University hospitals are now allowed to purchase pharmaceutical supplies directly for a period of three months.

Education

  • Details revealed on the division of the University of Damascus into two entities show that the first will have 20 colleges while the second will have 22 colleges.
  • The Ministry of Education issued a circular calling on teachers in Aleppo to return back to normal duties and original places of work.

Tourism

  • The Supreme Tourism Council approved a contract with a private company to develop the Ebla Cham Palace Hotel and the Conferences Complex in Damascus.
  • The Minister of Tourism issued Regulations 500/2017 and 505/2017 laying down new conditions for touristic accommodation services and hotels. Regulation 500/2017 sets prices for hotel stays depending on the classification of each hotel.

Transport

  • The Council of Ministers approved the formation of a committee to assess the situation concerning unlicensed vehicles and to issue clear instructions to resolve their status.
  • The Ministry of Transport has started receiving requests from international airline companies to transit through Syrian airspace. According to the Minister of Transport, a German airline company sought approval to commence direct flights from three German cities to Syria.

Agriculture

  • Legislation was being prepared to set up the Syrian Wheat Establishment.

Immigration

  • MPs discussed a bill amending Legislative Decree 17/2015, which relates to consular fees for granting and renewing passports and travel documents for Syrian citizens abroad. Some MPs in the relevant parliamentary committee pushed for the consular fee to be reduced from $400 (US) to $300 in their deliberations but this move was rejected by the People’s Assembly. The fee therefore remained $400. For urgent issuance of passports, the fee is $800.
  • The Council of Ministers adopted a bill on adjusting the fines for foreign nationals who exceeded their residency requirements in Syria by overstaying.
  • US President Donald Trump’s travel ban on Syrians and nationals of five other countries faced obstacles as a federal court in Hawaii sought to extend the injunction blocking the ban. The ban targets Syrian refugees and those who do not possess green cards. The Trump Administration at the time was appealing a ruling from a federal judge in Maryland that also blocked the ban from taking effect. The judgment in Maryland only halted the implementation against ordinary travelers and not refugees, who were still covered by the ban. Nevertheless, the ban against refugees was halted by the court ruling in Hawaii. The case is now before the Supreme Court.
  • The United States subsequently applied a cabin baggage ban on electronic devices from 10 airports in eight countries but it has since loosened some restrictions on certain airlines. The British government subsequently followed suit with similar measures.

Judiciary

  • The Council of Ministers approved a new bill pertaining to the banking courts.
  • According to the Ministry of Justice, there were more than 1,500 lawsuits before the Banking Court of First Instance since the beginning of 2017. The most number of cases in this Court originated in Lattakia province. During the previous year, the total number was 6,529 lawsuits. There were also 67 cases before the Banking Court of Appeal compared to 245 cases last year according to the Ministry.
  • The Ministry of Justice prepared a bill establishing customs courts in every Syrian province with an execution department to implement judgments.
  • The Ministry of Justice established and restructured customs courts in nine provinces to speed up proceedings based on a plan by the Supreme Judicial Council.
  • The President of the First Customs Court of Appeal in Damascus claimed that there are 1,200 smuggling cases at the appellate stage, 20% of which date back to before 1980. One such case dates back to 1964 and is still lingering on in the Customs Court for more than 50 years. Such delayed justice is quite extraordinary in light of the difference in the value of the Syrian Pound over the course of the last 50 years, especially following the current conflict in the country.
  • Notification procedures and incomplete paperwork are the reasons for delays in the passing of judgments by the customs courts. When there are not such delays, judgments may be passed in less than five months or even a few weeks. When a defendant does not appeal a judgment, this also speeds up the litigation process.
  • MPs discussed a bill establishing civil courts of first instance and appeal to deal with maritime cases in Tartous and Lattakia provinces.
  • The Ministry of Justice is automating the judicial and administrative work of the Terrorism Court. The automation of judicial and administrative work in general is taking place throughout Syria.
  • The Supreme Judicial Council approved training programs for judges in Homs, Tartous and Suwaida.
  • The Minister of Justice continues to implement a plan to provide further legal training to judges throughout the Syrian provinces.
  • ISIS claimed responsibility for the suicide attack against the Palace of Justice in Damascus on March 15th.

Government

  • New Ministers were appointed to the government. Hisham Al-Shaar became the new Minister of Justice while Samer Al-Khalil took over as Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade. Finally, Salam Al-Saffaf became the new Minister of Administrative Development. The new Ministers met with President Bashar Al-Assad after they were sworn into office.
  • Hisham Al-Shaar, a judge, previously served as the President of the Council of the State- the Administrative Court- which hears disputes where one of the parties to a lawsuit is a public sector entity. During his brief tenure as President of the Council of State since early 2016, Al-Shaar promoted a new bill on the powers and authority of the Council of State. The new bill seeks to end the alleged reputational bias of the Council of State towards the public sector.
  • President Bashar Al-Assad issued Decree 73/2017 listing the names of individuals appointed to the Cabinet Consultative Council charged with advising the government.

International

  • The Swiss Federal Council lifted selected sanctions against Syria following a similar decision by the European Union. The decision in question was to facilitate the purchase and financing of petroleum products for humanitarian organizations operating in Syria. The move by Switzerland applies to the purchase and transport of petroleum products. The lifting of sanctions applies as well to related financing activities carried out by humanitarian organizations that receive funding from the Swiss Confederation.
  • The European Union conditioned an aid program for Syria on a political settlement to the conflict and a commitment by the International Monetary Fund.

Miscellaneous

  • An article appeared in a Syrian online publication arguing how a culture of respecting the law is missing in Syria.
  • Law 10/2017 amends the fees of licenses stipulated for in Article 37 of the Arms and Ammunition Law provided for in Legislative Decree 51/2001.

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