Syria’s businessmen invest in post-war reconstruction

Sunday 05/06/2016
A January 2016 file picture shows the Syrian Army, backed by the pro-government National Defence Forces militia, after they seized hilltops surrounding the strategic town of Salma, in the north-western province of Latakia.

Latakia - Many businesspeople, including some black­listed by Western powers, finance mili­tants fighting along­side Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army in the hope that if Assad ends up with a major role in post-war Syr­ia, they would be granted lucrative reconstruction contracts.

If Assad retains an important say in Syria, reconstruction contracts are likely to favour those busi­nesspersons who supported his regime, economist Suleiman Sulei­man said.

“This eventuality will be normal because these businessmen spend millions of dollars in various as­pects in support of the Syrian gov­ernment,” he said.

Such thinking shows that the regime and its clique would have learned nothing from the war, said Issam Khoury, another economist.

“Hundreds of thousands of homes were destroyed, tens of thousands of Syrians were killed and millions have become refugees all over the world,” Khoury said. “However, the economic thinking of the ruling elite is still the same. Moguls want to sustain their gains and privileges but in post-war Syria, they want to appear as heroes, not act clandes­tinely as they have done for many years.”

Khoury said reconstruction con­tracts would be granted to new companies owned by the same mo­guls, in partnerships with others for camouflage purposes. “Deals will be made with Russian, Chinese and Iranian companies. This is some­thing Syrian officials say already,” he said.

Pro-regime militant groups in­clude Qalamoun Shield, Desert Fal­cons, Sea Commandos, National Defence Forces and al-Bustan As­sociation. Assad’s influential cousin Rami Makhlouf backs the latter.

Al-Bustan Association brings together 11,000 fighters, hailing mainly from Tartus and Latakia, the seaside towns in the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect, a source in the group said, requesting anonymity.

“They fight in many areas, includ­ing Latakia, Homs and Damascus’s countryside. Each fighter makes 75,000 Syrian pounds ($341) a month, or twice as much as a regular Syrian Army serviceman,” he said.

Makhlouf, the main owner of Syriatel, one of two licensed mobile phone companies in Syria, is the only bankroller of Al-Bustan Asso­ciation, which takes orders from the Syrian Army and pays compensa­tion to the families of fallen fighters, according to the source.

Besides Syriatel, Makhlouf is in­volved in real estate, banking, free trade zones along the border with Lebanon, duty-free shops and lux­ury department stores. He owns Al-Sham Holding, which carries out projects for the government. Many Western powers, including the Unit­ed States and the European Union, have blacklisted and sanctioned Makhlouf.

Ayman Jaber, a Syrian oil tycoon also blacklisted by Western pow­ers, finances Desert Falcons and Sea Commandos which provided 7,000 fighters to help the army in the bat­tle to recapture Palmyra from the Islamic State (ISIS).

Jaber, a native of Latakia who heads the Council of Iron and Steel, is an investor in Al-Sham Holding and partner in Addounia TV, a pro-government privately owned chan­nel.

After Western powers sanctioned Syria’s oil sector early in the war, Jaber became the only importer of oil products into his homeland, sources said. His militants secure production at Jazel and Shaer oil and gas fields near Palmyra, selling products to the government.

Western governments say George Haswani, a native of Yabroud near Damascus, is involved in buying oil from ISIS-controlled fields that led to his blacklisting. He finances Qalamoun Shields, which includes 2,000 militants fighting close to the Lebanese border.

Haswani owns HESCO engineer­ing company, which specialises in building oil and gas pipelines and facilities. He gained prominence af­ter taking part in negotiations with al-Nusra Front to exchange detain­ees held by the regime for nuns held by the Islamist militant group. He is also believed to be involved in wheat imports.

Other pro-government business­people preferred to avoid militancy and focus instead on supporting the Army. Mohammad Hamsho, a Dam­ascene merchant and an electronic engineer, contributes money, food and clothes. He also backs pro-gov­ernment media outlets, including Addounia.

He is believed to have expanded his businesses, relying on his ties with Maher Assad, the president’s brother who is commander of the Republican Guard and the army’s elite Fourth Armoured Division. In addition to Hamsho International Group, the businessman, also sanc­tioned by Western powers, has stakes in Middle East Marketing and Syria International for Artistic Pro­duction.

Hamsho, who alongside Makhlouf, Haswani and Majd Sulei­man, jointly owns Al-Sham Holding, established in 2013 Jupiter Tourist Projects, which has tourist facili­ties worth millions of dollars in and around Damascus. He also runs an internet services company.

Majd Suleiman, son of Bahjat Suleiman, a retired State Security officer and Syria’s ambassador to Amman, owns United Group, spe­cialising in media, advertising and marketing and runs 14 mostly non-political periodicals, except for Bal­adna daily, which promotes the re­gime’s views.

A source at the group said it was primarily meant to launder money pocketed by Majd Suleiman’s father while he was with State Security.