During his visit to the Syrian capital Damascus on 12 May 2021, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced the inauguration of the Iranian Consulate General in the city of Aleppo, located in the north of the country, with the approval of the President of the Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad, with the aim of expanding the scope of cooperation between the two countries. The opening of the Consulate on 22 May 2021 represented a clear declaration of Iran's future intentions in Syria, perhaps the most prominent of which being its tendency not to leave the country completely, and laying the foundations for an economic positioning in the event that its military presence comes under greater pressure during the coming period.

Iran in Aleppo: the centrality of the economic factor

The announcement of the inauguration of a consulate in Aleppo reflects the presence of new elements in the strategy of Iran, which has come to realise that there is a general tendency to drive it out of Syria. Therefore, it began seeking to consolidate its presence by replacing the tools or at least creating official departments through which it would manage its group of interests. Iran and its militias have strong control in Aleppo, given that those militias participated in regaining control and had the upper hand therein, which enabled them to control most of the city militarily and service-wise, so much so that the regime forces, service directorates, and security branches have become subservient to them.

The inauguration of the Iranian consulate in Aleppo indicates that the city has become home to a large Iranian community. Furthermore, Iran has strived to create this community with continuous effort since its direct military intervention in Syria. This community consists of local and foreign militia members, and many of them hold dual Syrian and Iranian citizenship at the same time.

During the past years, Tehran has sought to make up for the money it provided to Damascus after 2011, and tried to control several economic sectors, some of which included the signing of joint cooperation agreements between Tehran and Damascus in the fields of agriculture, livestock, industry, and oil. Iran has also obtained strategic investments in phosphate mines in the Khneifis area (near Hama governorate in central Syria), and contracts to build a major oil refinery near the city of Homs. Iranian companies also contributed to signing important contracts for reconstruction purposes.

However, the discrepancy between the Iranian positioning and the Russian strategy with regard to the Syrian economy greatly hampered Iran's economic endeavours during the previous stage, especially that the pressures that Tehran faced during that period and their enormous effect on its economic situation prevented any development of Iran's economic presence in the Syrian arena.

Thus, one of Tehran’s goals in opening a consulate in Aleppo is to advance the Iranian economic presence, especially in light of the military pressure experienced by Iran in Syria, which is demonstrated through the bombardment of Iranian military targets by the Israeli air force. Iran also faces political pressure represented in the discussion of the Iranian military presence in Syria in exchange for reactivating the nuclear agreement.

Furthermore, Russia has long sought to monopolise the bulk of the investments in Syria, especially those related to oil and gas and reconstruction files without paying attention to the agreements signed between Tehran and Damascus. This may make the position of the Iranians in Syria even more difficult in terms of their efforts to maintain their influence during the reconstruction stage, especially since Russia may also push to limit the Iranian military influence in line with the US and Arab commitment to the necessity of implementing this limitation. Therefore, Tehran may find in the consulate an important economic outlet for it in Syria if the level of pressure on it is raised in connection with the military presence.

Recently, a number of changes occurred in the economic scene in Aleppo, the most prominent of which being the arrival of a group of merchants close to Iran to the leadership of the Chamber of Commerce in the governorate, allowing them to control production and transportation relations. This came after the traditional base of the economic community in Aleppo was subjected to pressures and setbacks that led to the exclusion of its most prominent elements, both through bankruptcy and the exclusion of those remaining from that base. Thus, the economic scene there became monopolised by the new business class.

All of the above factors can be considered among the most important justifications for Iran’s efforts on the path of economic expansion in Aleppo, after Iran’s markets turned into one of the limited options to benefit from in securing raw materials and spare parts, especially that Iran does not abide by any sanctions imposed on Syria that limit trade movement and imports. Furthermore, Iran has great control over the smuggling routes between the countries of the region to which it is connected by land, through strategic routes that Iran has established and is striving to preserve as a last line of defence for the amounts it paid in Syria and wants to get back.

Other Iranian strategic objectives

In addition to the above, Iran aims from the establishment of the consulate in Aleppo to achieve another set of goals, the most important of which are the following:

  • Expanding Shiism operations in and around Aleppo, given that the poor areas of Aleppo are a target for Shiism campaigns, especially since the Syrian regime continues to punish the residents of this area. Besides, Russia has stopped protecting those people, who are forced to resort to Iranian militias to protect them from the regime's security services and obtain some in-kind aid. The Iranian Shiism campaigns are focused on the eastern Aleppo region, whose capital is the city of Maskanah. The residents of this area are supporters of the Syrian regime, and they have joined the militias supported by Iran. After the end of the war in their areas, a large part of them returned to their civilian lives. Iran seeks to get close to them by holding periodic meetings with local tribal leaders and dignitaries. According to sources from the region, Iran has not yet achieved any gains in this region, but has also not been repelled by the local population.
  • The work of the Iranian Consulate will not be limited to Aleppo and its countryside, but will include large areas in the east and west, especially the northern Hama countryside, where the process of buying lands in this area is active for Iranian personalities, via mediation, through Syrians loyal to them, especially in the city of Morek located on the Aleppo-Damascus highway. The region is also famous for its cultivation of pistachios, whose production areas between Hama, Idlib and Aleppo  Iran seeks to control, and which is considered one of the finest types of pistachios in the world. Prior to the events, Syria occupied the fourth place in the world in the production of pistachios. Iran exploits the absence of the owners of those lands and their presence in refugee camps in Idlib and outside Syria, which threatens a demographic change in this region.
  • The inauguration of the Iranian consulate in Aleppo would lead to strengthening the intelligence network of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that manages the Iranian expansion project in Syria, so that there would be a security, military and economic databank, in parallel with the organisation by that network of the files of the militias affiliated with Iran in the east and north of Syria, prioritising their work during the current period, and coordinating the domestic revenue that they receive. The presence of a head of a security network in Aleppo, which represents an important centre of presence for Iranian militias, would be a technical step that would benefit Tehran’s expansion project in Syria, in order to determine the mechanism of local dealing with those militias in those areas during the coming period, especially in light of expectations of developments that might change the military landscape.
  • Iran's fight against the Turkish expansion. Ankara has become a competitor that cannot be ignored over large areas of northern and northeastern Syria. Accordingly, Tehran must have an umbrella or front for its movements in a region with a military, economic and strategic dimension, bordering Turkey with long land borders. The consolidation of the Iranian presence in Aleppo means ensuring that the city remains under Iranian control, even if Syrian-Turkish relations return to their previous condition. It is known that Iran was the most affected by the opening of relations between Turkey and Syria in the pre-2011 phase, due to its inability to compete with Turkish products. Besides, the popular mood in Aleppo was also tilted towards Turkey.

What is next?

The problem is that there has not yet been a real confrontation with the Iranian project in Aleppo. Experts believe that the Iranians will succeed in their project to change Aleppo’s Arab and Islamic identity, as long as there is no force capable of removing them from the city. On the other hand, there are those who see a glimmer of hope through the resistance shown by a number of Aleppo scholars who are not loyal to the Syrian regime and the Iranians. These have preferred to stay in the city despite the risks to defend Aleppo against this Shiite expansion. Besides, dependence by the Iranians on the poor families in the city of Aleppo cannot eventually lead to a change in the doctrine of the Aleppines, since in Aleppo, there are Sufi lodges (zawiyas) and Sharia schools that absolutely reject the Iranian project.

In the same context, the movement National Action for Syria, a founding member of the coalition of revolutionary and opposition forces, with the majority of its leaders from Aleppo, called for the need to work on creating a joint Arab effort against Iran in Syria. It said that Iran's announcement of the opening of a consulate in Aleppo is considered part of its dominance over Syria's economic incubator, and an affirmation of its security, political and economic expansion.

On the other hand, it is likely that Iran’s economic project to prepare for the reconstruction phase, an indication of which is the opening of its consulate in Aleppo, will collide with Turkey’s ambitions, which, due to its proximity to Aleppo, seeks to supply the requirements for the reconstruction of the region in partnership with the Russian side, based on the understandings of the two sides which have been established for years. Therefore, Iran's economic entry into Aleppo means competition for Turkey which wants to preserve its share in a balanced way alongside Russia.

The Iranian consulate in Aleppo is expected to be a destabilising factor for Turkish-Iranian relations in this important Syrian city. Indeed, this consulate may be a nail in the coffin of the Astana Path, which the US has always sought to end. Perhaps the conditions would become favourable for terminating it during the period ahead, especially that the Russian-Turkish bilateral coordination during 2020 has worked to limit Iran’s political role in Syria, which may also motivate Tehran to strengthen its economic influence there within a new equation of interests that requires rapprochement with the US in exchange for limiting Tehran’s military influence, while giving it a green light for economic expansion in Syria.

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