Iran building long-term influence in Syria

Recent weeks have seen the Syrian economy deteriorate further and the national currency, the Syrian pound, fall to an all-time low.

Four years of an uprising-turned-civil war have taken their toll on Syria’s economy and society. Following European sanctions on its oil sector and the takeover of all the main oil fields by ISIL and Kurdish groups, the government has stopped generating foreign currency receipts, while the destruction of most business activity has reduced fiscal revenues. Increasingly, the government is seeking the help of its allies, Iran and Russia, to fill the gap.

Iran, in particular, has taken a leading role in providing financial support to Damascus.

In January 2013, it extended a credit line of $1 billion. The Syrian government could use the money to pay for imports with the condition that 60 percent of these imports came from Iran. Since then many tenders issued by public sector companies have included the mention that bidding is open only to Iranian companies.

Then, in August 2013, Tehran provided another credit line, this time worth $3.6 billion, dedicated to the purchase of oil products, also mostly from Iran.

These two financial agreements helped Iran increase its share of Syrian imports to a third of the total.

Historical economic ties very weak

Prior to the uprising, and contrary to the depth of their security and political relations, economic and trade ties between the two countries were actually very weak. In 2010, for instance, bilateral trade reached only $320 million, compared with $2.5 billion for trade between Syria and Turkey and even $940 million for trade with the United States – in spite of long-standing sanctions imposed by Washington on Damascus for the latter’s alleged support of terrorism. Iranian investments in Syria also paled compared with those from the Gulf and the European Union.

The relative modesty of these ties was a consequence of several factors: trade networks between the two countries are historically limited compared, for instance, with those existing between Damascus and the Hijaz, and between Aleppo and Mosul or the Turkish hinterland; they have no common borders and are separated by Iraq with which both countries had conflictual relations and closed borders for decades. Finally the two economies are not complementary and none produces or trades products that are competitive in the other’s market.

In addition, after his arrival to power in 2000, Bashar Al-Assad built economic ties with Turkey and Arab countries in an apparent bid to balance the strategic ties existing with Iran. While Syria joined the Greater Arab Free Trade Area in 2005 and signed a free trade agreement with Turkey in 2007, it did not bother to do the same with Iran. The two countries signed a preferential trade agreement only in 2011, after the beginning of the uprising and the deterioration of relations with Turkey and the Arab world.

Finally, there was always an element of suspicion in these relations and one example is particularly telling.

In the summer of 2010, Syria issued a tender for the award of a third mobile phone licence in the country. The government received six offers from France Telecom, Saudi Telecom, Turkcell (Turkey), Q-Tel (Qatar), Etisalat (UAE) and Toseye Eatemad Mobin, an Iranian company believed to be tied to the revolutionary guards.

A few months later, and only weeks before the beginning of the uprising, the Ministry of Telecommunications announced its shortlist. It decided to prequalify five of the companies and to reject one… the Iranian company.

Iran capitalising on Syria’s weakness

Today, short of money, and of allies, the Syrian regime is left with little choice but to accept the conditions of the Iranians.

In the short-term, it is unlikely Iran will stop providing funds to Damascus, at least the bare minimum required to help keep the regime afloat – Tehran has simply invested too much in the Syrian war to give up now.

On 6 May, Adib Mayaleh, the governor of the Central Bank of Syria, told Bloomberg that Tehran was close to granting an additional $1 billion. The amount may have actually already been disbursed given that the Central Bank pumped dozens of millions of dollars in the first week of May to help prop up its currency.

However, for larger amounts of money, Iran is likely to capitalise on the weakness of its ally. Reports have emerged that the Iranians are seeking to obtain collaterals from the Syrian government in the form of real estate assets or other state properties.

What is clear is that the Syrian regime has become strongly dependent on Iran’s economic aid, which adds to its reliance on Tehran’s political and military support. This carries significant political risk because it makes the regime much less capable of resisting potential pressures from its ally.

If Iran were also to obtain collaterals for the aid it is granting, and therefore get hold of important Syrian assets, it would guarantee for itself significant political influence in Syria that would last long after the end of the regime.

This article was originally published in Middle East Eye on May 12, 2015

Russia looks for economic gain in Syria

The Syrian government has confirmed a preliminary agreement with Soyuzneftegaz, a Russian oil and gas company, for the exploration of the country’s offshore waters, highlighting Moscow’s desire to capitalise economically on its sustained political and military support for the Assad regime.

No details have emerged on the specifics of the agreement between Soyuzneftegaz and the Syrian government but its timing is significant. For Damascus the deal represents a much needed attempt to secure energy supplies and revenue flows.The November announcement capped more than five months of negotiations between the government and Soyuzneftegaz and a formal agreement is expected to be signed between the two parties in the next few weeks.

Recent gas finds in the offshore areas of Israel and Cyprus have raised the energy prospects of the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. However, Syria has been slow in exploring its offshore potential, partly because of the 30-month old conflict gripping the country.

In 2007, the Syrian government did launch a bidding process for the exploration and development of four offshore blocks over a total area of 5,000 square kilometres. However, because of the poor terms offered and the high risks and costs associated with offshore exploration the process was largely unsuccessful – only one small independent oil company submitted a bid. Another licensing round with improved terms was initiated in March 2011, only days after the beginning of the first protests. Unsurprisingly that round also failed to attract much interest.

In the last two years all international oil companies have withdrawn from the country. European and Canadian companies quickly left because of sanctions imposed by their home countries. Russian and Chinese companies left at a later stage due to the widening violence, particularly in the north-east where almost all oil and gas reserves are located. Some 14 foreign companies were involved in oil exploration in Syria in early 2011, of which eight were western and only two were Russian.

Soyuzneftegaz, which was exploring an area located on the border with Iraq, was among these – the company had drilled two wells in its block but has not yet made any finds. Unlike European firms, it is not now bound by any sanctions. It would also face fewer security problems in offshore exploration given that the coastal area is among the safest in the country.

Since the beginning of the uprising two and a half years ago, Moscow has been a key ally of the Assad regime, supporting it against most of the international community. Russia’s support has principally come through the use of its political weight and its veto power in the UN Security Council, but also through financial and military backing. The governor of the Syrian Central Bank has, for instance, acknowledged on several occasions that his institution is using Russian banks to escape European and American sanctions.

For Moscow, which has a controlling stake in Soyuzneftegaz through the Central Bank of Russia, the deal with the Syrian government holds several potential benefits. Firstly it enables it to capitalize economically on its support for the regime; secondly it could help it secure a foothold in the eastern Mediterranean’s potentially promising gas reserves; and thirdly it would gain an advantage over rivals, including Qatar and Iran, in any future competition to control energy supply routes from the Levant to Europe.

Despite analysis to the contrary, Russia’s direct interests in Syria over recent years were very limited. Its naval base in Tartous was more akin to a resupply station; its economic presence was restricted to a handful of companies; cultural relations were negligible; and political ties were unimpressive.

Russia’s support to Damascus since the beginning of the conflict was first and foremost a means for Moscow to reassert itself on the international stage and to rehabilitate the Security Council as the source of legitimacy for intervention in international affairs. But with the lengthening of the conflict and Damascus’ continuing dependency on it, Moscow is now trying to secure some material reward.

Note: This article appeared first in December 2013 in the blog of the European Council on Foreign Relations

Time to pipe up

Competition over energy resources has played a major role in the power struggles of the Middle East over the last half century. However, its importance in the Syrian conflict remains difficult to adequately assess.Syria lies at a crossroads of energy export routes and various pipelines, existing or under plan, across its territory. The most significant of these projects involve countries such as Iran, Iraq, Qatar and Turkey.

One of the pipelines being planned is the Islamic Gas Pipeline (IGP), which should see the transport of gas from Iran to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and from the port of Tartous in Syria to European markets. The agreement over this project was signed in early 2011 by the four countries. In its first stage leading it to Tartous, the pipeline will be 2,000-kilometers long and will cost $2.5 billion to build. When completed, it will have the capacity to transport 110 million cubic meters of gas a day from Iran, including 20 million cubic meters that will be sold to Syria and 25 million to Iraq. This pipeline would bypass Turkey.

Interestingly, the gas is supposed to come from a field shared by Iran and Qatar — named South Pars in Iran and North Dome in Qatar — that is considered to be the largest gas field in the world.

Qatar, which has developed its side of the field much more rapidly, is also reported to have a project to build a pipeline that will transport its gas through Turkey and from there to European markets. The pipeline will have the advantage, for Qatar, of bypassing the Strait of Ormuz. However, Qatar is considering two options, one that would run through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and then Turkey, while the other would go through Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq to Turkey.

Although these facts point to strong competition between the two countries, it is difficult to draw from them clear conclusions as to their impact on the struggle in Syria.

Iran, for instance, is not yet a serious competitor for Qatar because, for obvious political reasons, European countries have refused to sign any long-term contracts with Tehran. In the absence of purchasing contracts from the EU, which is by far the largest market for natural gas, Iran will be unable to be a serious competitor. Also, the capacity of the pipeline will be relatively small compared to the consumption of the European Union, which is currently at 1.5 billion cubic meters a day, set to grow rapidly in coming years.

Meanwhile, the Qatari pipeline will not necessarily use Syrian territory and Doha would first need the approval of Saudi Arabia — never too enthusiastic when it comes to helping its small neighbor and rival — for either of the two options it considers. It is also worth noting that in the years preceding the conflict no negotiations were reported to have taken place between Syria and Qatar on the project, in spite of the very good relations existing at the time between the two governments.

There are also two arguments that diminish the importance of the energy geopolitics in the Syrian conflict. The first is that if Iran were to develop an important gas export capacity, its first and main competitor would be Russia. Indeed, Europe is currently highly dependent on Russian gas and Moscow uses this as a lever of power in its relations with the EU. Russia was actually one of the main opponents to the defunct Nabucco pipeline, which would have transported gas from Iran and Azerbaijan through Turkey to Europe.

Also, if energy had such importance in the conflict in Syria, one would have expected the Syrian regime to highlight it much more frequently. In the two years of the uprising, the Syrian authorities have almost never mentioned the issue of the gas pipelines as a reason for the involvement of regional countries in the conflict.

There is little doubt that the Syrian conflict will have consequences on regional energy projects. It is difficult, however, to make the case that this issue is the main reason for the regional competition over the struggle in Syria.


Note: This article appeared first in the November 2013 edition of Executive Magazine

A dwindling number of options

Press reports that the Syrian government is printing money in Russia to pay civil servants salaries and to close its budget deficit have raised serious concerns.

Two issues — one political and the other financial — are at stake.

The decision to print Syrian bank notes in Russia has been known for some time, as the Minister of Finance, Mohammad Jleilati, announced at the end of May that his government was close to finalizing discussions with the Russian authorities for that purpose. It follows a ban imposed last fall by the European Union on printing Syrian bank notes; two EU members, Austria and Belgium, were among the countries printing Syrian currencies.

However, by going to Moscow, the Syrian authorities have only confirmed an increased dependency towards their Russian counterparts, with all the political consequences that this new state of affairs may entail. For months now, the consecutive rounds of sanctions imposed by the EU, the United States, the Arab League and Turkey have squeezed the Syrian government’s room to maneuver and increased reliance on Russia. Last December, for instance, the Central Bank of Syria announced that it had opened correspondent accounts with three Russian banks — VTB, VEB and Gazprombank — in a bid to avert new sanctions on its foreign assets by the European Union, which were eventually imposed in February.

Since then, there has been speculation that much of the country’s foreign reserves had been moved to Moscow, though a lack of transparency makes it difficult to confirm the location of these assets or their size (estimated at around $17 billion prior to the beginning of the uprising in March 2011). Other indications of this growing dependency include negotiations to have Syria join the existing Customs Union that consists of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, or the recent series of bilateral agreements in sectors as varied as petroleum, electricity and manufacturing.

As international calls for action to stop the bloodshed in Syria grow, Russia is likely to hold an increasing number of cards in its hand to pressure Damascus. From a financial and monetary point of view, however, the main issue of concern is not where Syria prints its currency but for what purpose. Indeed, while the story initially published by Reuters quoted Syrian bankers saying that the newly printed money was meant to finance the government’s deficit, the governor of the Syrian Central Bank strongly denied it, saying that the new bank notes would replace worn out bills, an operation the central bank “has been regularly doing since it was established just like every central bank around the world.” The government has also denied it was having any difficulties financing salaries and other payables; Jleilati recently said that the 2012 budget deficit was forecast at a reasonable 6 to 7 percent of gross domestic product, in line with expectations. The Minister of Finance has an obvious interest in downplaying the difficulties his government is facing, but while there is little doubt that the treasury is increasingly strained, it is difficult to claim that a collapse is imminent.

It will not be easy to identify the purpose for the government to print new bank notes. Since May 2011, the Central Bank has stopped publishing its monthly bulletin, which reported, among other things, the levels of money supply. What is clear, however, is that if the government were to resort to the printing press to finance its expenses, the risk is an immediate inflationary impact.

While the government had managed to keep a relative lid on the consumer price index for most of last year, prices have jumped in recent months, climbing 15 percent in January on an annual basis, and more than 30 percent in March and April — including a more than 40 percent increase in the food and beverages category. Relying on the printing press, therefore, risks increased social unrest.

However, the only obvious conclusion from this debate is that both from a political point of view and from a financial rationale, the options at the hands of the Syrian government are fast declining.


Note: This article appeared first in the July 2012 edition of Executive Magazine