Iran Claims a Stake in ‘Reconstruction’ of ‘Strategic Ally’ Syria

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told visiting Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad on Tuesday that Tehran will support its “strategic ally” in Damascus until “final victory” is achieved in the long-running Syrian civil war.

Iran’s defense minister, Brig. Gen. Amir Hatami, also met with Mekdad and told him Iran plans to play a major role in the postwar “reconstruction” of Syria.

Mekdad visited Tehran on his first trip out of Syria since he became foreign minister last month. The position became open following the death of 79-year-old Foreign Minister Walid Muallem of unspecified causes. Muallem was a fierce loyalist of dictator Bashar al-Assad, noted for arguing in international forums that hostile Western powers caused the Syrian civil war by hiring “extremists and terrorists” as mercenaries to overthrow Assad. 

Muallem played a key role in rebuffing United Nations efforts to negotiate a “political settlement” to hostilities in Syria, an outcome that would almost certainly have removed Assad from power. Instead, Assad called in support from Russia and Iran for an extraordinarily vicious military campaign against rebel forces. 

With Russian and Iranian help, Assad was able to reconquer most of Syria beyond the insurgent stronghold of Idlib province, which became the scene of a massive humanitarian catastrophe after a lengthy siege and constant attacks by the Syrian government and its allies.

Iranian officials pledged their continuing support to Mekdad when they met with him on Monday and Tuesday, but also gave him some idea of what Tehran expects as repayment for propping up the Assad regime.

Radio Free Europe (RFE) quoted Rouhani insisting that Syria must continue making trouble for Israel until “the liberation of all occupied lands,” an effort that involves a steadily growing Iranian military presence in Syria. Israeli forces have launched numerous airstrikes against Iranian positions in Syria and shipments of weapons to Iranian proxy forces.

Iran’s Tasnim news agency quoted Mekdad commiserating with Hatami about the deaths of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who were killed by a U.S. airstrike in January and unknown assailants last week, respectively.

Mekdad reportedly congratulated Iran for continuing its military activities despite international sanctions. Soleimani was eliminated after coordinating terrorist attacks against American positions in Iraq and orchestrating an attempted siege of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, while Fakhrizadeh was believed by Israeli intelligence to be secretly working on nuclear weapons in defiance of the Iranian nuclear deal.

According to Tasnim, Hatami told the Syrian foreign minister that “Iran is determined to continue cooperation with Syria in reconstruction of the Arab country.”

Iran makes no secret of its desire for a major stake in Syrian reconstruction. For the past five years, the Syrian government has been holding “Rebuild Syria” expositions, and Iran always sends a large contingent of political and economic representatives — much larger than the delegations sent by Russia, which also hopes to profit from reconstruction. 

In November 2019, Iran signed a major agreement to help restore Syria’s power grid by constructing power plants, restoring transmission lines, and possibly connecting Syria’s grid to Iran’s by running cables through Iraq. The total value of the deal was not disclosed, but Syria’s electricity minister said half of the country’s grid was damaged during the civil war and “Iran’s role is important” in restoring it.

Iranian construction companies have been hired to build thousands of residential units in the suburbs of Damascus, while Iranian developers were encouraged by their government to buy as much Syrian property as they could, presumably seeking good prices for property that was devastated by the war.

In addition to seeking financial gain from Syrian reconstruction, Iran sees the Syrian market as a vital instrument for working around Western sanctions, and it needs access through Syrian territory in order to threaten Israel and support its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon. Extensive reconstruction projects would provide Iran with a way to maintain a physical presence in Syria, including security forces to protect its civilian contractors.

Both Iran and the Assad regime have political ambitions tied to reconstruction. Assad is using elaborate zoning laws to destroy property held by his political opponents, reward loyal supporters, and push troublesome populations out of key Syrian cities, especially his seat of power, Damascus. 

Voice of America News (VOA) in 2019 cited allegations that Iran wants to use reconstruction to “carry out a systematic demographic change in many parts of Damascus and elsewhere in Syria.” 

“Iran is exploiting the fact that many Syrians, who are mostly Sunnis, have become extremely poor because of the war, and so it is offering them high prices for their properties that they can’t refuse,” economics professor Musallam Talas of Mardin Artuklu University in Turkey explained.

Syria is a majority-Sunni country ruled by Shiites, the version of Islam championed by Iran. Assad and many of his top officials are Alawites, a secretive sect of Shiite Islam. Many of the Syrian rebel forces were Sunni Muslim groups. 

In addition to consolidating Shiite control over Syria by rearranging its demographics, particularly in areas close to Iran, the Iranians have an interest in protecting or controlling Shiite holy sites in Syrian territory. VOA News noted that a prominent Shiite cleric in Damascus, Abdullah Nazzam, has been using his religious authority to help Iranian businessmen purchase real estate.

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