President Bashar Al-Assad makes no secret of his intention to take control of the telecommunications sector in Syria. The granting in February of a license to the company Wafa Telecom as the country’s third mobile telephone operator consolidated its grip on this lucrative sector, after the takeover of the two other operators, Syriatel and MTN Syria. The state and Syrian businessmen linked to the Assad clan are among the shareholders, including the now essential Yasser Ibrahim, economic adviser to the president and key man in the empire that the latter has built with his wife, Asma.
On the other hand, the secret was well kept on the majority shareholder. Purposely. An investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and the Observatory of Political and Economic Networks (OPEN), published on Friday, December 9, reveals that, behind an opaque financial package, hides a Malaysian company linked to the guards of the Iranian revolution, the armed wing of the Islamic Republic.
This partnership with the Syrian authorities constitutes a ” return on investment “ expected by Iran in return for the support it gave to the Assad regime in the civil war. Since the outbreak of the conflict in March 2011, Tehran has financed the Shiite militias who fought in loyalist ranks and supported the country’s economy, in particular by importing oil on credit. In May 2020, Iranian MP Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh estimated that Iran had helped Syria to the tune of $20 billion to $30 billion. Bilateral trade, however, remained at a symbolic level, hampered by Western sanctions. Iran has been robbed of many projects by Russia, whose diplomatic and military support has been decisive in maintaining the Assad regime.
“Difficult to say no to the Iranians”
Entry into this leading sector, which is also strategic in terms of surveillance, therefore reinforces Tehran’s ambitions in Syria. Telecommunications remain profitable despite the economic decline caused by the war, frequent power cuts, and the destruction of almost 60% of the infrastructure. In 2021, the cumulative profit by the shareholders of MTN Syria and Syriatel amounted to 46 million dollars, after they paid the State its share, nearly 38 million dollars. “This represents 3% of state revenue, which is not negligible”underlines the economist Jihad Yazigi, editor-in-chief of the online economic newsletter Syria Report. Very favorable conditions were granted to the new operator to carve out a place for itself against the duopoly which has dominated this market of 12 million users since 2001: Wafa Telecom obtained a three-year monopoly to deploy the 5G network and the authorization to offer a half-price package to its first three million users.
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