Syria moves further into Iran’s orbit with new deal

A memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed November 4 in Tehran promised cooperation in constructing power plants, transmission lines and possibly merging Iran’s and Syria’s power grids via Iraq.
Sunday 10/11/2019
Syrian President Bashar Assad (L) speaks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Damascus, last April.(AP)
Power politics. Syrian President Bashar Assad (L) speaks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Damascus, last April.(AP)

TUNIS - With Iran’s signing of a preliminary agreement to work with the Syrian government to reconstruct the country’s war-damaged electrical power grid, Moscow’s and Tehran’s often competing interests gained a further foothold.

A memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed November 4 in Tehran promised cooperation in constructing power plants, transmission lines and possibly merging Iran’s and Syria’s power grids via Iraq, the state news agency IRNA reported.

Russia has invested heavily in Syria’s natural gas and phosphates resources, as well as undertaking major construction within and around its military bases. Iran has invested in Syria’s telecommunications and electrical infrastructure.

The military intervention of Iran and Russia into Syria’s devastating conflict proved critical in reversing Damascus’s fortunes and saving Syrian President Bashar Assad from almost certain defeat. While their presence may have bolstered Assad’s promises to retake every inch of Syrian soil, their intervention has not come without cost to Syria’s future and its place in both countries’ wider policy objectives.

Commercial links between Iran and Russia are not new, in many cases predating Syria’s civil war, but what has changed dramatically are the circumstances. In 2009, when Russia attempted to pay off debts it had accrued through anchoring its fleet at Tartus, Syria, through key investments, Damascus was able to refuse. Since then, Syria’s economic output has declined an estimated 70%.

Given the ruinous state of Syria’s economy and the millions of dollars needed in aid and for reconstruction, quick returns on Moscow’s and Tehran’s investments are unlikely. However, it has been suggested their commercial interests in Syria point to wider strife.

“Neither Russia nor Iran are going to make money out of Syria,” Nicholas Heras, Middle East security fellow at the Centre for a New American Security think-tank, said, “but by investing within certain key industries, particularly with regard to Syria’s few exportable industries, as well as in what could potentially in the future be tourist areas, such as in Damascus and Aleppo, Russian and Iranian business interests, if not the states themselves, could make some good money.”

While hopes to embed their presence in Syria’s economic present and exert as much influence as possible over its political future are factors in Iranian and Russian thinking, broader concerns could be steering policy.

“For both Russia and Iran, the physical geographic location of Syria is the most important factor that leads to their strategic investments in Assad’s regime,” Heras said.

“For Russia, the air force base at Hmeimim (near Latakia) and the naval pier at Tartus allow (it) to extend its powers into the Eastern Mediterranean, which is a major area of focus for Russia.”

“Russia has spent a significant amount of time and energy in trying to control lines of communication and trade in the Mediterranean, which has historically been an area of interest,” Heras said, highlighting Russian efforts in developing Syria’s Mediterranean provinces.

Moscow’s aim, Heras noted, was to establish those regions as anchor points on which Russia could project its influence to further locations, such as Libya and Egypt, and “potentially, in the future, even further west, to Morocco and Gibraltar.”

For Iran, establishing a long-term political and economic footing on Israel’s doorstep is no less important.

“In fact, what led to Israel’s extensive campaign against Iran and Iran-backed groups over the last two years was the Israeli assessment that the Iranians had shifted their priority from using Syria as a geographic space for sending precision-guided weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon to using Syria as a permanent base to store and distribute weapons and also organise attacks against Israel from Syria,” Heras said.

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