Iran, Russia share Syria’s wealth under umbrella of law

By Lamar Arkendi

Syria (North Press) – The early years of the Syrian crisis witnessed a competition between Tehran and Moscow for Syria’s vast and important wealth, as they sought to maximize their economic gains through long-term investments and control over the rich country through its rare mineral mines and energy resources by a set of long-term agreements.

Following their direct intervention in Syria, both Iran and Russia, expanded their military influence and solidified their strategic presence, aligning with their long-term interests and future plans in a country that the crisis had transformed its territories into a battleground for international powers controlled on the matters of Syrian file by enhancing, consolidating, and controlling vital aspects, especially the military and economic ones.

Iranian Penetration

Through its influential agents in Syrian cities such as al-Mayadin, Abu kamal, Deir ez-Zor, Damascus, and Aleppo, which are under complete Iranian influence, Iran began to acquire properties and assets owned by civilians, including agricultural

lands and commercial properties, especially those belonging to displaced individuals. Real estate offices have proliferated significantly in these cities and their outskirts, with new real estate brokers, including Jasim al-Khaled and Ghareeb al-Taie. Local activists from Deir ez-Zor Governorate, eastern Syria, confirmed to North Press that Iranian organizations, notably Jihad al-Binaa, are overseeing real estate purchase operations and have branches in most of the Syrian cities controlled by Iran.

Local reports revealed that there is an Iranian official named Haj Amir Irani who manages real estate buying and selling operations in al-Mayadin, Abu Kamal, and areas of Deir ez-Zor. They also exposed Iranian acquisitions through agents from the region, including Raad, known as Abu Layth, and Zuhair, nicknamed as al-Nimr. These individuals are relatively unknown on a wide scale but have significantly facilitated those transactions.

Ahmad, an activists who preferred not to reveal his last name for security reasons, mentioned that the man called Iranian owns several offices in al-Mayadin and Deir ez-Zor. He stated in an interview with North Press that he rarely appears in these offices, and no one from the local population has met him in person.

Iran’s real estate extend to Damascus and its countryside. According to media reports, the buying and selling process is active in Damascus countryside on both sides of Homs Highway and includes areas such as al-Mazraa, Makassar, al-Hijariya, al-Sayyal, all the way to Tel Kurdi. It also covers the Douma-Harasta road, ending in the Adra industrial area and al-Dumayr, which connects the desert to the Iraqi border, with the facilitation and management of the State Security branch, led by Brigadier General Samer Bredi.

In response to Iran’s expansion in Damascus, media activist Mustafa Khalil who is from Damascus, warned of the alarming and concerning phenomenon of real estate buying and selling by Iranian brokers.

He told North Press that these sales operations are managed by businessmen and investors directly linked to Hezbollah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) under the protection of security branches, and their real estate offices are spread throughout the capital, purchasing Syrian properties at extremely low prices.

He also pointed out Iran’s penetration into the markets of Damascus’s cities and towns to buy commercial properties and agricultural lands, some of which were valued at over a quarter of a million dollars before the country’s crisis but are now sold for less than $7,000.

Pressure Tactics

The Iranian side takes advantage of what Minister of Roads and Urban Development, Mehrdad Bazrpash, initiated by utilizing the debts owed by the Iranian government to Damascus. Syria formed eight specialized committees, including a committee to monitor debts and dues, with the precise task of accurately assessing the debt’s volume. Bazr Bash revealed agreements between his country and the Syrian government, outlining a system of exchange where the latter would grant territories in return for its financial obligations.

On the other hand, Rami Abdurrahman, Director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), mentioned that one of the relatives of the Syrian president oversees the sale of Syrian real estate in Damascus and its suburbs, especially in Muadamiyat al-Sham in Rif Dimashq Governorate, in favor of Iran.

In exclusive statements to North Press, he mentioned that there is an individual known as Mursal and he is a relative of the wife of Maher al-Assad, brother of the Syrian President, from Deir ez-Zor and runs these operations.

Abdurrahman noted that the properties, estimated to thousands of dollars, remain vacant,  with no one residing in them. “The phenomenon has worsened amidst the economic and living collapse afflicting the country, making it easier for Tehran to take over entire neighborhoods through financial ways sometimes or by coercion and intimidation at others. Many homes of civilians have been transformed into military bases and drug production centers, especially for captagon”, he added.

In Syria’s commercial capital, Aleppo, which Iran and its militias are increasingly dominating, they take over its commercial markets by forcing merchants to sell due to increased taxes. Media activist Mustafa Khalil stressed that there are deals affecting hundreds of commercial properties and homes damaged by earthquakes, where their owners were prohibited from renovating or inhabiting them under flimsy pretexts.

Economic Sharing of State Assets

Iran and Russia have suffered economically since the beginning of the protests in Syria. They have been keen to minimize their losses and compensate through signing a set of economic contracts, projects, and agreements with the Syrian government based on economic gains at the expense of the Syrian people.

In this regard, economic researcher Firas Shabou believes that there is an unannounced understanding between Iran and Russia regarding the sharing of Syrian economic sectors. Russia has taken control of ports, shipping traffic, and phosphate, while Iran has secured their vast share of Syria’s assets.

Shabou attributes this to Russia’s political objectives in Syria and its presence in the region as an economic base with investments that are not within the field of state institutions. In contrast, Iran has taken over infrastructure, roads, electricity, and telecommunications, as well as quasi-oil industries, in addition to landsandproperties under contracts signed between them and the “Assad regime.”

The Syrian researcher, during an interview with North Press, said that the ambiguity of contracts signed, such as Damascus International Airport and parts of Aleppo International Airport, along with other airports have being leased by Iran. The truth of these non-transparent agreements and the specified duration of the leases, as well as the allocation of oil to the Qatirji Company and allowing it to sell without knowing the party that is responsible for, have not been clarified so far.

Shabou said, “Moscow and Tehran have shared the vital assets, while the rest of the properties are inefficient and remain as state assets that the government sells to gain profits, so about two weeks ago, customs duties were unified between Syria and Iran.”

“Syria does not possess what it wants to export to Iran, while Iran, which is self-sufficient, exports to Syria and is the biggest beneficiary of the customs duties issue, which falls within its expansionist policy to control the border crossings and non-controlled zones in the country”.

In this context, the economic expert Samer Raouf estimated Iran’s share of Syria’s economy at $50 billion, citing official statistics that recorded Iran’s non-oil exports to Damascus at 147,000 tons valued at $243,168,533 during 2022.

The expert noted that Iranian exports to Syria increased by 10.6% on weight and 11.4% on value compared to the previous year.

Regarding the sharing of influence between the Russians and Iranians, Shabou explained that Iran primarily controlled southern Syria, Aleppo and its countryside, while the Russians have taken the central region rich in phosphates and the Syrian Coast.

Long-Term Contracts

The economic specialist emphasized that the signed contracts are long-term, and regimes changes do not cancel contracts among countries. Therefore, Iran and Russia are keen to extend the duration of these contracts to ensure their economic presence even if al-Assad is overthrew.

In the same context, Islam al-Mansi, a researcher specializing in Iranian affairs and international politics, explained in an interview with North Press, how Moscow legitimized its takeover of important strategic and economic assets in Syria.

“Russia legitimized this takeover by signing contracts with the regime that allow them to control on these assets. They have leased the port of Tartus on the Mediterranean Sea for 49 years, have signed an agreement that allows them to receive 70% of the revenues from phosphate extraction from mines in Palmyra for 50 years, have dominated the milling sector in Homs and its fertilizer company that is the largest chemical industrial building in Syria for 40 years. Russian oil companies were given exclusive rights for oil exploration in Tartus for 25 years, as well as the management of oil fields in Deir ez-Zor, in addition to dozens of other places that the Russians acquired due to the prevailing circumstances without agreements with the regime”, he said.

He also pointed out that the Russians and Iranians exchange some locations, either peacefully according to bilateral understandings or by force. “The Russians seized more than one oil field that was under the control of Iranian militia, so clashes took place between the Fifth Corps, affiliated with Russia, and the Fourth Division, affiliated with Iran, in Deir ez-Zor, Hama, its countryside, and Latakia countryside. The Iranians try to establish control over the Latakia port with determination to have a maritime base in the eastern Mediterranean. They have also succeeded in obtaining control over several oil wells in Abu Kamal in the far east, and they have controlled on important commercial and industrial centers, as well as vital facilities like Damascus International Airport, T-4 Air base, and vast agricultural lands”, he added.

Law No. 10

Concerns have resurfaced with the return of Law No. 10. Despite Russian assurances that Damascus had canceled it, many legal experts and human rights advocates doubted the sincerity of the Russians at the time. They pointed out that there is no law for the cancel or annulment of the law once it has been officially issued, except through another law that cancels it, and it is  merely an attempt to avoid the negative reaction, as described by political and legal affairs researcher Daniella Qaraan.

She mentioned that Walid al-Muallem who served as foreign minister of Syria, had stated in June of 2018 that an amendment would affect the provisions of the law. According to al-Muallem, it was decided to amend the time period for proving ownership from one month to a year, and indeed this is what the People’s Assembly (Syrian Parliament) approved.

Qaraan explained to North Press that this law paves the way for the seizure of thousands of real estate properties. The People’s Assembly approved two amendments that stipulate the prolong of the period for providing proof of property ownership in the country, in addition to allowing objectors to resort to regular courts. This means that Law No. 10 is still in effect.

Qaraan recalled a statement by the former United Nations humanitarian affairs advisor, Jan Egeland, during a regular meeting in Geneva on the Syrian crisis, “Russia informed the participants that the regime had canceled Law No. 10, which could be used to confiscate the properties of people who were objectors on the law and refugees unable to provide documents proving their ownership of lands where new organizational plans would be issued, and many international legal experts doubted the veracity of the Russian claims”, she mentioned.

“Unfortunately, if this law is applied realistically, many Syrians will lose their properties in Syria. The problem is much larger than procedural issues as the regime claims. For example, many Syrians who are wanted by security forces are currently living outside Syria and have properties inside the country. Some of them are wanted for their involvement in relief work at the beginning of the 2011 and 2012 protests, and some of them do not have relatives inside Syria who can provide evidence of their ownership of facilities and properties. So, what is the solution? Therefore, there must be a political solution in Syria and an end for security prosecutions, or they will never be able to preserve their rights”, she added.

She noted that many Syrians hope that Russia would be sincere when it claimed that the regime had stopped implementing this law, and even at the Quadripartite Summit in Turkey that was between Russia, Turkey, Germany, and France, which took place some years ago, it was reported that Law No. 10 was a topic of discussion. Many countries and organizations objected to the law and called for its overturn, including the United Nations. However, the regime does not recognize any of this, and no solution will be achieved until it has completely restructured the country according to its own vision.

Expropriation of properties

The legal affairs specialist believes that the issue of property ownership among Syrians has multiple dimensions. “The regime seizes the properties of all dissident Syrians who have been displaced, whether to outside of Syria out of fear of retaliatory actions by Damascus, or to northern Syria as a result of agreements between Ankara and Damascus under Moscow’s auspices, which led to the expulsion of hundreds affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, based on settlement agreements resulting from sieges, starvation, shelling, and international agreements.”

Under the pretext of labeling them as terrorists, the law is utilized to expropriate their properties. The second aspect is the potential impact of Law No. 10, as every displaced person who seeks refuge in areas outside the control of the regime, whether inside or outside Syria, becomes wanted for security reasons. They are deprived of returning to their homeland because they face immediate arrest, making it impossible for them to provide the required documents to prove their ownership.

Furthermore, Qaraan added, “If a Syrian wishes to appoint a lawyer to represent them legally, foreign powers of attorney require obtaining security approval. If there is any security request against them, their power of attorney will not be accepted by the notary, resulting in the loss of their ownership rights. As for allowing relatives up to the fourth degree to submit ownership documents, it may be possible if the ownership is within the same province. However, if there is a security memorandum against the owner from Idlib, and they had a house in Damascus where all family members are wanted by security forces, who would provide them with those documents? And if none of them is wanted for security purposes, what about the burdens, costs, and risks of travel and following up on those procedures?”

“Even those who remain in regime-controlled areas are actually at risk of displacement under the pretext of reconstruction. Firstly, anyone who has a house on state-owned land or owned by it does not enjoy any advantages, even if they have been on this land for a long time.”

As for those who own the land, “their property, whether a house or a commercial property, will be converted into public shares. They will have shares within the regulated area but will not have a clear property or land.”

Previously, the Syrian government announced its intention to seize the properties of individuals who have evaded military service, both inside and outside of Syria, and have not paid the ‘service exemption’ fees for those above the age of 42.

The head of the Exemption Fees Branch within the government forces, Colonel Elias Bitar, declared that the General Recruitment Directorate would confiscate the funds and properties of anyone who reaches the age of 42, whether they are inside or outside of Syria, and has not fulfilled their military service or paid the fees. If the individual does not possess any properties or real estate, a precautionary seizure will be executed on the properties of their family members.

In this context, Qaraan states, “From a legal perspective, the regime’s actions contradict the provisions of Article 15 of the Syrian Constitution, which prohibits the expropriation of private property except for public benefit and in accordance with a decree and a judicial decision. It also violates the provisions of Article 51, which relate to the nature of punishment, guaranteeing the right to litigation, defense, objection, and appeal. Additionally, the precautionary seizure of the properties of those who have evaded military service is an arbitrary and unconstitutional measure issued by an authority without judicial oversight.”

Returning to the researcher on Iranian affairs, Islam al-Mansi, he adds that Iran has benefited from Law No. 10, which allows for the expropriation of properties of citizens who are absent due to war. Iran has also granted citizenship to militants of Iranian-backed militias and allowed them to take control of the properties of many absentees. As a result, these properties have been registered under the names of Iranians who have been naturalized.

The government aims to secure financial resources to help it continue its war against the Syrian people and circumvent international sanctions. It is the winner in both cases, whether through those who agree to pay in cash or by selling their properties and the properties of their relatives, both movable and immovable. The most haunting question for Syrians is what is left in Syria for them?