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Iran and Russia ‘friction point’ forecast in Syria

2019/03/16 | 01:56

(Iraq Now News)-

Russia and Iran‘s investments in

post-conflict Syria may have a different focus right now, but eventually the

two countries may be competing for influence in the war torn country, according

to a senior academic.Russia’s

investment in Syria since the civil war started in 2011 has been more focused

on projects that generate foreign exchange revenue, such as precious metals and

phosphates, while Iranian capital injections have focused more on real estate

and agricultural opportunities, according to Steven Heydemann, Janet W Ketcham

1953 Chair and Professor, ME Studies, Smith College.Speaking to The National at The

Future of Syria: Towards Inclusive Peacebuilding event at Chatham House in

London, Mr Heydemann said: “From an Iranian perspective, there is less of an

interest in actually going head-to-head with Russia and instead trying to

expand on the trading opportunities that has derived from its proximity to

Syria, and trying to expand the tourism and travel opportunities.”Iran

has been purchasing real estate around Shia shrines and in parts of Syria with

significant Alawite populations, while Russia does not have a large footprint

in Syria’s real estate market.“I

do think frictions will emerge at some point and tensions between Russia and

Iran as they move towards the zones in Syria where the other has occupied the

leading role, but at the moment we‘re not seeing that much,” Mr Heydemann

added.

“We‘re not seeing the investment in real estate by Russia that Iran is

making for example.”Russia has, however, showed some investment

in Syria’s tourism industry, announcing that Moscow-based construction company

STG.LOGISITC will rehabilitate the tourist village of Manara in Tartous

province.Sinan

Hatathet, Omran Center for Strategic Studies, said: “Both the Russians and the

Iranians are well placed to benefit from the next stage of this conflict, but

the reality is much more complex.”“When

it comes to rebuilding infrastructure and manufacturing industries – we haven’t

seen much interest come from Moscow.

Iran doesn’t have much equity to spare in

Syria in the first place.”He

said that Iran and Russia adopt “a very opportunistic approach” when it comes

to the Syrian economy, and the former is more selective than latter when it

comes to directly assisting the Assad regime.Regime‘s control of aidAnother

panel at the conference covered the NGO sector in Syria.

Haid Haid, consulting

research fellow with Chatham House Middle East and North Africa programme, said

that the Syrian regime’s hostility to humanitarian charity operations in

government controlled areas means Damascus exercises almost total control over

aid distribution, often through powerful officially-aligned bodies.“Most international NGOs are denied access

to those areas by the regime through different tactics – for example, if you

request a field visit on March 15, you’ll only get a response after that date –

and they’ll say they don’t have time to process it.”The

event takes place on March 15, to mark the eight year anniversary of the Syrian

Civil War.Local

NGOs in Syria include Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and the Syrian Trust for

Development, which was set up by Asma al-Assad, the wife of Bashar al-Assad,

the country’s president.Haid added that many international NGOs are

asked to give money to local organisations, but it presents a problem because

the foreign companies cannot assess the demands of the locals and cannot

monitor the distribution of aid.

Mr Haid said that instead of competing with

each other in the region, international NGOs should push principles of being

“neutral, impartial and being able to provide aid to all of those who need it”

harder so that they have a greater impact on the region.“Their

donors could also provide more leverage – by negotiating with local actors or

by holding those INGOs accountable,” he added, before saying that the UK

Department for International Development could be doing more to hold the UN

accountable for this issue.Agricultural lossesOne

sector international NGOs have been supporting in Syria is the agriculture

industry, which in 2010 before the war, was connected to 46% of the

population’s livelihoods, according to The Food and Agriculture Organisation of

the United Nations (FAO).

The organisation, which helps support the Syrian

farming industry, estimated in April 2017 that the conflict had imposed $16

billion in losses to Syrian agriculture.“The

agricultural sector was reeling from a few problems before the conflict and

that was only exacerbated by the conflict and violence in 2011,” said Basma

Alloush, advocacy and communications officer at the Norwegian Refugee Council

USA, covering the Middle East, west Africa and Afghanistan.The Syrian farming industry has been

historically closely managed by the government, which has used tools such as

fuel subsidies to exercise control, she said.

Before the droughts of 2006, the

government was pushing Syria to be a more self-sufficient producer and not rely

on external actors to sustain its population.

The state bought almost all the

wheat produce and set prices, maintaining a close relationship with the

agricultural sector.The

droughts in 2006 caused a huge influx of migration from rural to urban areas ̶

former farmers who did not have transferable job skills.Ms

Alloush said that the civil war “perpetuated the problems that the sector was

already experiencing”, whereby equipment and tools for farming became scarce

and expensive amid a disruption in supply chain networks.

This was compounded

by a depletion of water and fuel reserves that posed significant challenges for

farmers.During

the civil war, many farms became battlegrounds and farmers found it much harder

to make money.“You’re

seeing economic losses from the revenues and profits the sector used to

generate.

It’s now just becoming a self-sustaining business, to feed your

family whenever you can, instead of trying to benefit the overall economy,” Ms

Alloush added.As

a result, many Syrians are turning to ad hoc work, such as petty trading or

smuggling goods across borders.

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