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Yulia Sveshnikova

Ph. D., Junior research associate at Higher School of Economics, Advisor of the PIR Center, RIAC expert

Iran’s presence in Syria remains a highly irritating factor for Israel, the United States and European countries, which are not ready to finance Syria’s post-war rebuilding as long as Iranian forces maintain their positions. Iran explains its presence in Syria exclusively by the fact that it was invited there by the Syrian government, classifying its forces as “advisors” or “(Shi’ite) shrine defenders.”

Despite the critical situation surrounding the JCPOA, which further deepens Iran’s domestic political crisis, Tehran is still determined to consolidate its positions in Syria. It can do so by creating a network of loyal Shi’ite units and groups are a cause for concern for its neighbours from the point of view of possibly repeating the Lebanese scenario.

Insufficient resources make the task far more difficult, and Tehran is forced to act with regard to Russia and China’s support, given the unwillingness of European investors to invest in post-war rebuilding of Syria.

Iran could have the following response to the shortage of funds to rebuild Syria: even if resources for full-fledged rebuilding are lacking, Iran could still play a negative role in the development of the situation in the region. This is why other actors should join the process in order to prevent the situation from exacerbating at the very least. In the meantime, Iran is planning to implement the contracts it undertook, but the question remains as to what funds Iran will channel into it.

Iran’s presence in Syria remains a highly irritating factor for Israel, the United States and European countries, which are not ready to finance Syria’s post-war rebuilding as long as Iranian forces maintain their positions. Iran explains its presence in Syria exclusively by the fact that it was invited there by the Syrian government, classifying its forces as “advisors” or “(Shi’ite) shrine defenders.” The two sides once again referred to Iran’s status as “invited advisors” during Minister of Defence of Iran Amir Hatami’s visit to Syria on Saturday August 25, 2018.

The declared goals of Brigadier General Hatami’s visit were to develop cooperation in the new circumstances and discuss Syria’s progressing to a post-war stage. The agenda included both military and economic aspects, since discussions focused on Iranian contractors rebuilding Syria. Iran’s military attaché in Damascus, Brigadier General Abolqassem Alinejad, said that once the Syrian government takes control of the entire country, Syria–Iran relations will only become stronger.

Yulia Sveshnikova, Hamidreza Azizi:
War of Interests for Peace in Syria
Iran will hardly succeed in bringing Trump back to the JCPOA in the foreseeable future, and it is certainly not ready to sacrifice its few military and strategic allies for that purpose, which makes preserving its influence in Syria virtually a matter of principle.

The military and economic aspects of these relations are largely interconnected, since both are intended to solidify Iran’s positions in Syria, preserving Iran’s outpost in its confrontation with Israel and boosting its regional influence.

The Military and Political Agenda

Israel has repeatedly expressed its concerns about Iran’s military presence in Syria, at times rather forcefully, by striking targets that presumably belonged to Iran. The United States has also spoken about the need to liberate Syria – not so much from terrorists as from Iranian forces. For instance, National Security Advisor of the United States John Bolton noted recently that this issue is a priority for the United States, and he has repeatedly discussed it with his Russian counterparts. However, Russia has made it clear that it would be impossible to pressure Iran on that account. The greatest compromise was achieved in early August, when Iran agreed to withdraw its forces 85 kilometres from Israel’s border. Still, Iranian analysts hastened to remark that those actions only played into the hand of Iran’s strategy in Syria.

Noting the fact that Syria had been liberated from terrorists and that the government would soon take control of the north-western governorate of Idlib, Hatami called the bilateral relations strategically invulnerable to third parties. In turn, Minister of Defence of Syria Ali Ayyoub said that without the help of its “Iranian friends,” Damascus would not have held out against the terrorists. He also noted that Iran’s place of honour on the map of Syria’s foreign political relations cannot be compared to the role of “occupants,” “marauders” or “warmongers,” thus confirming Hatami’s words that enemies would fail in their attempts to drive a wedge between Iran and Syria. The negotiations resulted in the signing of a military cooperation agreement that consolidates previous arrangements. Alinejad said that Iran’s military would help Syria clear the mine fields remaining from the war and restore the production of military equipment. Negotiations were also held on supplying certain weapons, for instance, Iran’s Kosar fighter aircraft that is, in essence, a copy of the U.S. Northrop F-5 fighter.

Accompanied by the Syrian military command, Hatami visited the border zones, Aleppo and places where “shrine defenders” are deployed (this term is used to denote Iranian military units deployed in Syria since, officially, they only help protect Shi’ite Muslim shrines). Hatami specifically noted the important role of “shrine defenders” in maintaining peace and security in the region, which in essence is another confirmation of their broader functions. Since the start of the war, Iran has, according to various sources, sent thousands of soldiers and pieces of military equipment to Syria, as well as and tens of thousands of mobilized groups from Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan. During the seven years of civil war, about 1000 Iranians have been killed, including senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officials. As a result, Tehran has become more open about its casualties and the justification of Iran’s presence in the combat zones.

The reinstatement of sanctions by the United States, as well as the introduction of new restrictions, following President Trump’s decision to renege on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear programme is also partially linked to Iran’s participation in local conflicts, since charges against Tehran include participation in the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts. Iran will hardly succeed in bringing Trump back to the JCPOA in the foreseeable future, and it is certainly not ready to sacrifice its few military and strategic allies for that purpose, which makes preserving its influence in Syria virtually a matter of principle.

The military cooperation agreement that Amir Hatami signed with his Syrian counterpart Ali Ayyoub and President Bashar al-Assad essentially enshrines Iran’s long-term presence in Syria. Bolstering the “resistance axis” was also mentioned at negotiations, which apparently refers to far-reaching plans to spread joint influence in the region. Iranian officials also noted that the parties had agreed on the presence of pro-Iran forces in Syria to aid the government, although official statements still called them “advisors.”

Iran’s far-reaching plans to consolidate its presence in Syria by creating a network of loyal Shi’ite units and groups are a cause for concern for its neighbours from the point of view of possibly repeating the Lebanese scenario. For instance, Lebanon’s Hezbollah conducted operations during the war in south-western Syria, despite Russia’s objections. In 2017, The Economist wrote that Hezbollah’s potential had grown by 17 times over the last decade, and Iran has had a huge hand in this. If Tehran does succeed in preserving its presence in Syria, which subsequently strengthen the presence of Hezbollah and other loyal groups there, the end of the civil war will not eliminate another permanent hot bed of tensions on Israel’s border. Therefore, there will be no short-term settlement of the situation even after the government forces take control of Idlib.

Iran’s Economic Interests

Given Iran’s current economic situation and the political crisis brewing in the country, it does not have enough resources to rebuild an entire war-torn country.

During his visit, Hatami also discussed the post-war reconstruction of Syria with his Syrian colleagues. This is part of the economic aspect of Iran’s motivations, even though it is closely linked with the country’s military and political plans. The issue of rebuilding Syria keeps cropping up on the international agenda, but, due to clashing political interests, a clear picture has not emerged. For instance, European investors are not prepared to invest in Syria as long as pro-Iranian forces or Iran’s “advisors” are present there. Given Iran’s current economic situation and the political crisis brewing in the country, it does not have enough resources to rebuild an entire war-torn country. However, the situation around the JCPOA and the need to ensure Iran’s own interests in the region prompt Tehran to move along the path of agreements even without sufficient means to do it.

Thus, Tehran’s principal economic interest in Syria at present is to remove the need to finance the war, which is taking resources away from settling Iran’s domestic economic situation.

Reuters and other media outlets have written that, Iran opened Syria a line of credit in 2013 worth a total of $5.6 billion, most of which went on Iran’s oil deliveries. The parties also began setting up banking relations, which was the subject of negotiations between representatives of the central banks of Iran and Syria in June 2017.

During Hatami’s latest visit, he said that Iran’s private businesses were ready to participate in rebuilding Syria. At the same time, at the end of last year, Major General Ali Jafari, the Chief Commander of the IRGC, said that, since the situation in Syria is not yet entirely safe, the IRGC forces, and not private companies, had charged with rebuilding the country. Most likely, against the background of sporadic protests arising in various regions of Iran since 2017 demanding, among other things that financing expensive foreign military campaigns be stopped, the decision was made to depict Iran’s participation as an opportunity for private companies to make money on large contracts. Similarly, private businesses could create a more positive international image. In essence, Syrian contracts will go to companies with ties to the government or specifically to the IRGC.

In fact, more serious discussions of economic agreements took place about a week before Hatami’s visit. During a visit to Syria in August 2018, an Iranian delegation signed agreements assigning Iranian companies a major role in rebuilding Syria’s infrastructure. Thus, the delegation led by Deputy Minister of Roads and Urban Development Amir Amini, accompanied by Abbas Akhoundi, Head of the Iran–Syria Commission on Economic Matters, held a series of meetings with various agencies, including the ministers of economy and housing. The discussions focused, in particular, on customs and banking cooperation that could help expand trade relations between the two countries. The agenda featured, among other items, industrial and technological cooperation, collaboration in telecommunications, establishing joint small and medium-sized enterprises, rebuilding the water supply system and power supply utilities and restoring the infrastructure in general. Teymour Bashirgonbadi, International Affairs Director at the Ministry of Roads and Urban Development, said that priority is given to the work of the bilateral commission at the level of the Prime Minister of Syria and the First Vice President of Iran.

During the negotiations, Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade of Syria Samer al-Khalil spoke about the need to use national currencies in mutual payments due to the United States reinstating sanctions against Iran. The Minister mentioned cooperation in several areas, such as tax regulation in bilateral trade, housing construction and, curiously, investment in rebuilding Syria, for which Iran has no money.

Tehran is forced to act with regard to Russia and China’s support, given the unwillingness of European investors to invest in post-war rebuilding of Syria.

Like Minister Hatami, Teimur Bashirgonbadi spoke about the indispensable role that Iran’s private business plays in developing bilateral cooperation to rebuild infrastructure facilities and restore historical monuments. The new memorandum on cooperation should cover all preceding agreements and draw a line under the principal arrangements on rebuilding the country.

It should be noted that these are not the first negotiations on economic issues. Iran and Syria have already signed an agreement on rebuilding the power infrastructure. Previously, relevant negotiations were held between Minister of Energy of Iran Sattar Mahmoudi and his Syrian counterpart in Tehran. Mahmoudi noted then that the agreements achieved were worth hundreds of millions of euros. It was assumed that Iran would rebuild the 90MW power plant in Deir ez-Zor and build a 540MW power plant in the Latakia Governorate. At that point, MAPNA Group, a company with distant ties to the IRGC, was expected to undertake initial projects.

Arrangements in telecommunications had also been previously achieved. In 2017, Syria announced that an Iranian consortium with the participation of Mobin Group would take part in establishing the country’s third mobile network operator. The same IRGC-affiliated company took part in a 2010 tender, but lost to France’s Orange and the United Arab Emirate’s Etisalat. In 2017, the company was deemed to have enough potential to carry out the work. In addition, the Syrian authorities can use the accumulated potential of Iran’s telecom companies in communications control.

***

Despite the critical situation surrounding the JCPOA, which further deepens Iran’s domestic political crisis, Tehran is still determined to consolidate its positions in Syria in the long term and, should the situation allow, partially follow the Lebanese scenario. Insufficient resources make the task far more difficult, and Tehran is forced to act with regard to Russia and China’s support, given the unwillingness of European investors to invest in post-war rebuilding of Syria. Iran also reaffirms its active political role by participating in the Astana talks; another summit od heads of state took place in Iran on September 7, 2018.

Iran could have the following response to the shortage of funds to rebuild Syria: even if resources for full-fledged rebuilding are lacking, Iran could still play a negative role in the development of the situation in the region. This is why other actors should join the process in order to prevent the situation from exacerbating at the very least. In the meantime, Iran is planning to implement the contracts it undertook, but the question remains as to what funds Iran will channel into it.

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Poll conducted

  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
 
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