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Economy

IRGC's Quds Force consolidates Iran's economic presence in Syria

By Waleed Abu al-Khair

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A labourer on July 25 works on the renovation of the Beit Ghazaleh house, an Ottoman-era-built residence in the Jdaydeh area of Aleppo's old town in northern Syria, which is currently being restored. [AFP]

Iran is making deep inroads into Syria's construction, financial and banking sectors through the deployment of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF) and its affiliates across Syria, analysts said.

This poses a threat to Syrian institutions in the future, they said, and heightens tensions between Iran and Russia, which also expects to profit from the Syrian economy.

"Iran is racing against time to procure projects in all investment, economic and financial sectors, especially reconstruction projects," Syrian economist Mahmoud Mustafa told Al-Mashareq.

This is a sensitive international issue, tied to the political situation and to international decisions related to Syria, he said, noting that Iran is making its inroads overtly, with wide coverage from Syrian regime-affiliated media.

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In April, a three-day Syrian-Iranian conference on reconstruction, "Post-war reconstruction: Strategies and experiences" took place at the University of Aleppo. [Al-Jamahir]

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Trucks loaded with Iranian goods are seen at the duty-free market in the Syrian capital, Damascus. [IRNA]

This type of endorsement "could give it legal cover in the long term", he said.

The way is paved for these moves through "the overt military deployment of the Quds Force and its local and non-Syrian tools", Mustafa added.

The Quds Force's plans

One of the most recent of these moves was in the northern city of Aleppo, which Russia is eyeing, Mustafa said.

In April, a three-day Syrian-Iranian conference on reconstruction, "Post-war reconstruction: Strategies and experiences" took place at the University of Aleppo.

"The main themes focused on the reconstruction of historic old Aleppo, which is one of the country's key economic zones, as it contains many Syrian industries in addition to being a tourist destination par excellence," he said.

"The plan, as is now clear, calls for the deployment of the Quds Force and all its military arms in certain areas," Mustafa said.

"After this comes the start of recruitment operations, dissemination of the doctrine of Wilayat al-Faqih [Guardianship of the Jurist] and bringing about of demographic change, followed by the phase of land and real estate acquisition," he added.

Eventually this leads to the establishment of economic projects, he said, "as is visibly evident in the border area between Lebanon and Syria, especially al-Tufail, al-Zabadani, the cities of Aleppo and Homs and their environs, as well as the capital, Damascus and its hinterland".

A large number of real estate properties changed hands recently in the eastern part of Aleppo, as well as the city of Homs, he said, with the transactions carried out by Syrian brokers affiliated with the IRGC-QF's proxies.

Despite the lack of data on the number of properties that new owners have acquired, either through purchase, seizure or tampering with official documents, estimates put the figure at about 750 properties in the border area, more than 400 in the Ghouta region, and more than 1,000 each in Homs and Aleppo.

A race between Russia and Iran

Iranian affairs researcher Sheyar Turko told Al-Mashareq that any observer of the situation in Syria would clearly see that there is a fervent race between Russia and Iran for total control of Syrian state resources.

"The two sides are trying to put their hands on the largest number possible of investments, lands, projects and natural resources as compensation for the money spent over the past years," he said.

"If we take into account that the Russian presence is older in the oil- and natural resources-rich coastal region, the Iranian incursion has been significantly faster than the Russian one, and it has even surpassed it in some areas," he said.

This seems to be the case in Damascus, Aleppo, eastern Syrian region, including the eastern desert (Badiya), and in al-Qalamoun on the border with Lebanon, where Iran-backed Hizbullah wields influence.

"[Iran] has grown to be a serious threat that is without a doubt obstructing the Russian projects," he added.

Turko said the Iranian incursion has been enabled by the Syrian regime via means that include the passage of new investment laws that facilitate Iranian business activities.

A package of agreements between Iran and the Syrian regime in the sectors of construction, banking and finance also has facilitated Iranian investment, in addition to the establishment of a joint Syrian-Iranian bank.

Iran owns the largest percentage of the bank, he said.

Quds Force institutions

According to Iranian affairs researcher Fathi al-Sayed of al-Sharq Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies, it is "not possible to separate the Quds Force from the Iranian regime's economic and investment tools".

This is because "Iranian companies and institutions are intertwined with military institutions, especially the Quds Force, which is tasked by Iranian leadership to deploy in the Mediterranean region", he said.

"Many IRGC- and Quds Force-affiliated companies play a fundamental role in several countries such as Syria, Iraq and Lebanon," he said.

This is particularly the case in Syria, he said, where many institutions such as the al-Shaheed (Martyr) and Jihad al-Binaa foundations and others are expanding "and now have sizeable economic arms".

Al-Sayed said many other Iranian companies have penetrated the economic and financial infrastructure in Syria, in a variety of ways.

These companies have made inroads into the Syrian free market in Damascus, where the number of operating companies has exceeded 20, he said.

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