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Paul McLoughlin

Syria Weekly: Selling the country to Iran and Russia

Syria's regime is looking at post-war money-making [TNA]

Date of publication: 18 March, 2019

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Syria Weekly: Syria is preparing to sell its key infrastructure assets to war-backers Russia and Iran.

Syria Weekly is a new, regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Weekly in your inbox each week, sign up here

While the war in Syria continues, regime allies are jostling for influence to see handsome financial returns for their military backing of Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, the cash-strapped Syrian regime is looking to bring in tourists this summer season.

With war and insecurity still looming over Syria, the kind of large-scale tourism that Damascus is seeking will not be achieved, while the regime is being forced to sell its crown jewels to Tehran and Moscow - making the future even less secure for Syrians.

Everything must go

Iran is set to become the operator of Syria's main commercial port, a move that will grant Tehran direct access to the Mediterranean, according to The Syria Report.

Latakia container port is one of Syria's main portals for imports and exports, notching up around 3 million tonnes of cargo a year. Talks are underway to give Iran management rights of the port along with 23 warehouses, a boon for Tehran's economic influence in the country.

Tehran has also established a strong military presence in Syria, due to its intervention in the war, with the regime now heavily reliant on Iranian-led militias for control of the country.

Iran has been increasing its holdings in Latakia, which has been seen by some as Russia's domain due to the location of Moscow's airbase in the city and a military port a little further down the Mediterranean coast in Tartous. In January, Iran established a power station in Latakia and revamped electricity generators. Iran and Syria's central banks agreed in January on closer cooperation, with Tehran frozen out of the international banking system and Damascus also under sanctions.

Iranian construction companies are looking to be part of Syria's lucrative post-war rebuilding programme, while Tehran has already established a strong real estate presence in Damascus and entered the telecoms market. Iran has also pledged to build railway links to Syria, via Iraq, which would give Tehran direct links to the Mediterranean.

In conjunction with its push for influence in Syria, Tehran is also strengthening its economic ties with neighbouring Iraq. Leading officials from both countries struck agreements in Baghdad on increased security coordination, visa-free travel, rail links, joint industrial zones, energy cooperation and to aim for $20 billion in trade volumes, according to Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

This gives Iran even more clout in the region and allows it to diversify its economic interests, just as it faces tough sanctions from the US.

Iran has made direct links to the Mediterranean - and Lebanon where its proxy, Hizballah is based - a strategic aim and its strong military strong presence in Iraq and Syria gives it this. Management of Latakia's port meanwhile gives Iran control of a key infrastructure asset in Syria, where a rivalry is emerging between Tehran and Moscow.

The move will likely spark alarm in Israel, which has launched scores of strikes on Iranian military positions inside Syria throughout the war. Israel has pledged to continue its pressure on Iran in Syria, so long as Tehran's presence in the eastern Mediterranean region continues.

With Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu looking to be re-elected next month with a far-right coalition, and ultra-conservatives strengthening their hand in Tehran, none of this bodes well for Syrians.

Palmyra

Syrian state news announced this week that demining operations and a general clear-up of the ancient Greco-Roman ruins of Palmyra is now complete and set to reopen for the summer tourism season.

Palmyra was twice captured by Islamic State group militants in 2015 and 2016, who murdered the head antiquarian Khaled al-Asaad and destroyed and looted sections of the World Heritage site. Russian-backed offensives and airstrikes also damaged Palmyra, while IS militants dynamited the ancient temples once found there.

Once a tourism hotspot due to its rich cultural heritage, Syria is still fraught with dangers for travellers and most European foreign ministries strongly advise against any travel to the country. This hasn't stopped at least one French travel company from offering tours of Syria, despite the UN advising that the country is not safe for refugees to return to.

Russia could be one potential market for the cash-strapped Syrian regime to attract visitors. Moscow's intervention in Syria's war turned the tide in Bashar al-Assad's favour, with anecdotal evidence that Russian soldiers have been granted a prestigious position in the country country. Moscow has looked to invest in Syria's tourism industry with the town of Manara, near Tartous, set to be developed by a Russian tourism operator.

Iran has meanwhile looked to invest in religious tourism, due to the location of the Shrine of Sayyida Zaynab in Damascus, while has the potential to bring in hundreds of thousands of Shia pilgrims.

Throughout the bloody war, Syria's ministry of tourism has sought to retain its relevance despite only a handful of visitors, coining slogans such as "Syria Always Beautiful" and releasing promotional videos on social media showing peaceful, sun-kissed beaches. Such efforts are more about propaganda value than actually enticing tourists, and Syria will likely be red-flagged by tourism operators for the foreseeable future.

Senator support

US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar sent a message of support to the Syrian people this week, coinciding with the eighth anniversary of the start of the Syrian revolution.

The people of Syria revolted against Assad's repressive dictatorship 8 years ago today, demanding a more just and free government. Peace loving people around the world stand in solidarity with them in this struggle," she tweeted.

The tweet surprised many Syrian activists as Omar never appears to have publically condemned Bashar al-Assad, and is reportedly close to some pro-Russia and regime activists.

Cue outrage from so-called "anti-imperialist left" supporters who believed that Omar's presence in something of a grey zone on Syria meant that she backed the Assad regime.

Rashida Tlaib, who along with Omar became the first Muslim women to enter Congress, has also been relatively quiet on Syria, but sent a message of support to Syrians over the weekend.

"The anniversary of the uprising against the oppression in Syria was yesterday. We must recognize the struggle of those who organized and stood up against injustice. It is my hope that we can see a Syria that is truly free one day," she tweeted.

These shows of support have enamoured both house representatives even more to Syrians, having shed the support of pro-Assad propagandists and boosting their credentials as America's progressives.


Syria Weekly is a new, regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Weekly in your inbox each week, sign up here


Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin

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