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Iran’s economic control is its hidden power in Syria

Syria's and Iran's Foreign Ministers, Faisal Mekdad and Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, during a joint press conference (File/AFP)

Iran entered the Syrian war in its early days without hesitation, based on the mistaken belief that the conflict would not last long. Tehran has since spent tens of billions of dollars on preventing the Assad regime from collapsing, leaving it in financial difficulties due to the cost of its military presence in Syria.

So, with the shift in the balance of power in the Syrian war in favor of Bashar Assad and the emergence of Russia at various levels (military, political and economic), Tehran began to seek its share of the “Syrian pie.” This began with its focus on economic hegemony in Syria and consideration of what had been militarily provided to the Syrian regime and what needed to be paid for in economic privileges.

When Iranian militias helped the Syrian regime recapture Rif Dimashq in the Damascus suburbs, Ghouta and the entire area of the capital city, they confiscated homes and lands from their owners under the pretext of reconstruction. Later, it turned out that this action was also related to organizing accommodation for Iranian militia members and their families, in addition to the financial benefits that these lands and properties brought. The excuse of reconstruction was a way to promote Iranian projects in Syria at the highest levels.

Last month, Syrian Prime Minister Hussein Arnous announced that he would welcome Iranian companies seeking to partner with economic institutions in Syria, under the pretext of serving the reconstruction process and carrying out investment projects.

The Syrian regime does not refuse any request from Iran, especially when it comes to its economic expansion in Syria. During a recent visit to Damascus by the Iranian minister of roads and urban construction, contracts were signed in the fields of transport, investment, petroleum products and infrastructure.

The Syrian regime does not refuse any request from Iran, especially when it comes to its economic expansion Ghassan Ibrahim

Iranian economic expansion in Syria means giving Tehran a blank check to exercise control after the war, which means long-term influence in Syria, even without the need for a military presence.

However, Iran’s growing economic influence does not sit well with some Syrian businessmen, with many migrating and relocating their investments to neighboring countries. Despite this, some of them have agreed to cooperate with the Iranians on economic projects that were also of a political nature.

Iran has tried to expand its network of contacts by using Syrian businessmen in areas beyond the commercial and economic sectors. These businessmen have become Iran's “hidden army” in Syria, ensuring that it will maintain control over the country in the future.

But Iran is not able to freely exploit the Syrian economy, as Russia is also present and wants to take advantage of the country’s economic potential, especially its natural resources and strategic location.

A public dispute between the two sides over Syria’s resources has surfaced in recent years. When Iranian militias were advancing to take over phosphate mines near Palmyra, the Syrian regime signed contracts with Russia and Serbia related to mines and natural resources. These contracts allocated 70 percent of shares to Russian and Serbian companies, leaving Syria only a 30 percent stake in its own mines and natural resources.

It is worth noting that the agreements signed by the Syrian regime with Iran similarly served Tehran more than Damascus. But Iran did not hide its dissatisfaction with the contracts signed by the regime with Russia and continued to extract Syrian phosphates without any agreements, taking advantage of the presence of its militias in these areas. The territories occupied by Iranian militias are de facto considered by them as their own, even without any formal consent.

Another case occurred in Latakia, when Iran tried to sign an agreement with the Syrian regime to manage the port and secure a trade route from Tehran to the Mediterranean. Russia managed to sabotage the deal and apparently gave Israel a green light to attack the Iranian militia in the port. The Israeli strike last December was a stern message to prevent any Iranian presence on the Mediterranean.

Soon after the strike, Russia arranged the signing of a cooperation agreement between Assad and the government of Crimea regarding the management of the Syrian port.

Today, Iran is preparing to take over Syria’s electricity sector. Assad this month issued a decree officially announcing the privatization of the energy sector, allowing private companies to produce and sell electricity to Syrian citizens. Many experts believe this decree will open the door for Iran to break into Syria’s electricity sector and export electricity to neighboring countries through its own companies and business allies.

Russia may try to hinder Iran’s economic interests in Syria, but Tehran is able to settle for the tiniest crumbs that Moscow overlooks to secure the biggest possible slice of the Syrian pie. What is certain, when it comes to Iran’s economic goals, is that its partnership with the Syrian regime does not serve the interests of ordinary people, but primarily its own financial needs and its ever-growing influence in Syria.

Iran’s economic control in Syria is a means to achieve what can no longer be achieved militarily or politically. It is a hidden power in a country whose leader is powerless, does not care about the interests of the people, and cannot say no.

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