Iran eyes share in Syria’s reconstruction
As Syria begins post-war reconstruction, regional powers are trying to get a share of projects that secure what they covet most. Iranian Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri’s recent visit to Damascus at the head of a senior economic delegation must be seen in this light.
A share of the reconstruction projects would mean a chunk of the many billions of dollars estimated to be part of the funding. It would also mean consolidating the foothold in Syria.
Jahangiri’s January 28 visit, however, did not happen in a vacuum. Iranian political, military and business leaders have for some time prepared for engagement in the Syrian market.
On December 13, 2017, Brigadier-General Abdollah Ebad-Allahi, then chief commander of Iran’s largest contracting company, declared his readiness to take part in the post-war reconstruction of Syria. The company, Khatam al-Anbia Construction Base, happens to be the engineering corps of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Major-General Yahya-Rahim Safavi, military adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, three months later, said: “Reconstruction of Syria will take several years and cost $300 billion-$400 billion at the very least… The Islamic Republic must be compensated for its expenditure in Syria and the Syrians are ready to compensate Iran with Syria’s oil, gas and phosphate mines.”
Iran’s bid to rebuild Syria was initially challenged by Russia, which signed a memorandum of understanding with Damascus to shoulder the entire burden of post-war reconstruction. Moscow indicated that Iranian companies could serve as subcontractors to Russian ones.
Infuriated by Moscow’s attempt to secure a monopoly, the IRGC pressured Damascus to engage Iranian companies as well. Syrian officials subsequently cautiously welcomed Iran’s role, alongside that of Russia.
For example, last August, Syrian Minister of Housing and Construction Hussein Arnous agreed to outsource the building of “30,000 housing units in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs [to] Iran’s private sector.” He said this at a meeting with an economic delegation from Iran and presumably felt it unnecessary to mention that Khatam al-Anbia Construction Base considers itself part of the “private sector.”
Articles began appearing in the international media about the IRGC’s future participation in Syria. On December 19, an Iranian official spoke in an interview with the Iranian Labour News Agency. Amir Amini, planning and resource management deputy at the Ministry of Roads and Urban Planning, emphasised the role of Iran’s “private sector” in the post-war reconstruction of Syria.
Evidence has yet to emerge about the existence of a vibrant private sector in Iran, let alone its involvement in Syria’s reconstruction, but there is plenty of evidence of the engagement in Syria of state or IRGC-controlled companies.
One indicator was the Damascus International Fair last September. It hosted 54 Iranian companies. Mohammad-Reza Khanzadeh, head of the Iran pavilion at the fair, was widely interviewed by the Iranian and Syrian media. Other than the automobile manufacturer SAIPA, Khanzadeh did not name any other Iranian companies exhibiting in Damascus.
Television footage helps identify some of the participants. There was Sherkat-e Madar-e Takhassosi-ye Omran va Maskan-e Iran, a subsidiary of the Foundation of the Oppressed (Bonyad-e Mostazafan), which is a “charitable” organisation and Iran’s second largest economic enterprise after the state-owned National Iranian Oil Company. Saba Battery, also in Damascus, is involved in Iran’s defence industry. There was Melli Sakhteman Company (Sherkat-e Melli-ye Sakhteman), ostensibly a private sector company that has energetically tried to engage in the construction of airports in Iraq.
Other participants at the Damascus Fair were Day Company (Sherkat-e Dey) and General Mechanic Company (Sherkat-e General Mekanik). Both are subcontractors to the IRGC’s Khatam al-Anbia Construction Base. Also present was Nojan Rad Company, whose public relations director, Arash Shahdadi, produced an account of the fair in a blog post. So did the Ghasem Iran Company, which trades in food and medicine.
All in all, the economic arms of the IRGC appear to have ensured a place for themselves in Syria alongside Russian companies. That’s the case at least right now until Moscow makes its next chess move.