Until around two years ago, Syria had only two cellular providers: MTN Syria and Syriatel. MTN Syria was owned by the South African MTN company, and Syriatel was owned by Rami Makhlouf, President Assad’s cousin. In Syria, both companies have provided services to more 12 million consumers.
Over the last four years, the Assad regime has pressured the country’s cellular companies to seize control of them and the cellular market. This pressure included the arrest and interrogation of company executives, the threat of revocation of contracts and licenses, and payment demands in the tens of millions of dollars. These moves were successful. By mid-2021, Assad had seized the two businesses and appointed members of his circle to lead them.
According to some accounts, the cellular market takeover may have been carried out with the assistance of corporations owned by oligarchs close to Russian President Putin, but there is no conclusive evidence of this.
In February 2022, the Syrian regime announced the granting of a third license to operate to a cellular company, called “Wafa Telecom.” Wafa’s CEO is Ghasan Saba, who previously held several senior positions in the Syrian Ministry of Communications.
As part of the license announcement, Syrian Minister of Communications Iyad Al-Khatib stated that “Wafa” has been granted exclusive rights to operate 5G networks in the country for two years, and he also asked the two veteran companies, MTN Syria and Syriatel, to allow “Wafa” to use their existing infrastructure, equipment, and communications towers until “Wafa” completes the establishment of an independent infrastructure.
With the establishment of “Wafa” (back in 2017), the company was controlled by the Assad family’s close circle, but its ownership structure changed within a short time, apparently due to Iranian pressure. These changes have meant that “Wafa” is now controlled by Iran through what appears to be a network of international front companies.
A detailed and professional investigation carried out by the OCCRP organization shows that following the dilution of the number of shares held by Assad’s associates, two Syrian businesses currently own 48 percent of “Wafa“. The first is Wafa Investment, which is controlled by Yasser Ibrahim, a close associate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the second is Syrian Telecom, which is controlled by the Syrian regime.
Photo above from: Syrian Telecom Facebook page.
The remaining 52 percent is controlled by a company called Arabian Business Company (ABC).
This firm was registered in Syria as a Syrian company in 2019, without disclosing any information about its controlling shareholders. Officially, ownership is split between a group of Syrian businessmen and a Malaysian firm called Tioman Golden Treasure.
Although ABC appears to be a respectable worldwide firm, a closer look reveals that it has several previous and present connections to Iran and the IRGC. In truth, it appears that this company serves as a shell company which operates as a part of a larger network of organizations that are used as a cover for Iranian activities in numerous industries.
The investigation carried out by OCCRP showed in addition that shortly before ABC’S listing in Syria, 99% of Malaysian Tioman’s shares were owned by an Iranian named, Azim Monzavi, who is known as a high-ranking officer in the IRGC’s oil smuggling enterprise.
The US sanctioned Monzavi due to his part part in facilitating oil smuggling between Venezuela and Iran. Additional individuals connected to Malaysian Tioman also owned shares in a company named PetroGreen, which is likewise registered in Malaysia and is sanctioned due to its ties to the IRGC-controlled Khatam al-Anbiya Reconstruction and Construction Company.
The Revolutionary Guards control the Khatam al-Anbiya Reconstruction and Construction Company (also known as GHORB). This corporation is, in fact, an umbrella organization under which hundreds of enterprises operate, serving as the regime’s engineering and execution arm and is regarded as an essential and central economic instrument.
According to the OCCRP report – Another indication of Iran’s ties to the network of shell companies in Malaysia is the fact that a number of Tioman and PetroGreen officials were also registered at other companies accused by the US of attempting to acquire “sensitive export-controlled technology” in the United States in order to transfer them to Iran.
As mentioned earlier, Monzavi handed over his shares in Tioman shortly before ABC’s listing in Syria. The shares of the company were transferred to an Iranian citizen named Amir Mohammadi, who has no known direct ties to the IRGC but does do business with Monzavi.
These two men owned stock in Energy Development, a corporation formed by PetroGreen and registered in Istanbul Turkey. Monzavi later took over Energy Development and handed it over to Mohammadi. In this regard, it is also worth noting that the company’s CEO was also sanctioned by the US due to his ties to the IRGC.
Another intriguing and incriminating element is that Monzavi and Mohammadi used the same Kuala Lumpur address, which was also shared by Tioman, PetroGreen, two other linked companies, and other officials in companies mentioned above.
In other words, the “Wafa” firm appears to be controlled by the IRGC on the one hand and the Assad regime on the other. Yasser Ibrahim, a close ally of Assad, and a state-owned business dominate the Syrian side, while a series of front companies with direct and indirect ties to the IRGC handle the Iranian side.
“Wafa’s” debut in the Syrian communications industry follows several years of Iranian pressure on the Assad regime. “Wafa’s” introduction into the communications market corresponds with Iran’s penetration into several sectors of the Syrian economy, with a focus on civilian and military communications infrastructure, infrastructure restoration, mine operation, and other areas. The Iranian pressure derives from Iran’s aim to recoup some of its tens of billions of dollars in military investments in Syria over the last decade, as well as its ambition to strengthen its grip on the country.
In addition to controlling “Wafa,” it appears that Iran has also supplied most of the equipment and technology used to build the new communications infrastructure. The equipment was reportedly transported from Iran to Syria, via the sea corridor, to the port of Latakia. These include Iranian-made transmitters, antennas, telecommunication devices, and other equipment.
Tehran-based Faraz Tejarat Ertebat Company appears to have supplied the preponderance of the aforementioned equipment. However, this company is actually used as a front for Pardazan System Namad Arman (PASNA), which is affiliated with the Iranian Ministry of Defense.
PASNA appears to use a network of shell companies registered and operating in Iran, Malaysia, China, and Hong Kong to purchase crucial components for the Iranian UAV and missile industries while avoiding American sanctions. These and other acts prompted the US to apply sanctions against PASNA and its officials, as well as the network of shell companies that operated under it, in early 2023.
It is worth noting that PASNA (through its shell companies) sends communications equipment to the Syrian army and ministry of defense as part of the agreements struck between Iran and Syria. This operation strengthens Iran’s hold on the country’s civilian and military communications networks, as well as its intelligence grip.
Another company facilitating Iran’s penetration of the Syrian communications market is Iran Electronic Industries (IEI). This company manufactures electronic systems and components and procures components essential for Iran’s various arms industries.
IEI is part of the Iranian Ministry of Defense and has ties to different government agencies controlled by the IRGC. IEI, like the other organizations discussed in this article, uses a network of shell companies in Malaysia, China, and elsewhere to obtain various components while avoiding Western sanctions.
IEI also has a large number of subsidiaries throughout Iran that are involved in the development and production of telecommunications systems, optics, electronics, information systems, and other products. IEI aided the Iranian UAV system and missile program, among other things, by developing, manufacturing, and delivering various systems and components. Furthermore, the corporation created software that allows for the monitoring of mobile text messages and passed it to the regime in Tehran.
As a result of these actions, the United States sanctioned the firm and the companies that operate under it.
In light of the foregoing, we believe that IEI aided the development of “Wafa” infrastructure in Syria by providing network monitoring and monitoring systems, as well as components required for the establishment of communications networks. IEI also manufactured 500,000 SIM cards for “Wafa.“
Despite early denials, it appears that the establishment of Iran’s cellular infrastructure in Syria is also supported by the Assad regime in recent months. The chairman of the Iranian-Syrian Economic Cooperation Committee recently stated that the Iranian operator’s entry into Syria’s cellular market was negotiated between the Iranian and Syrian communications ministers.
According to additional sources, the Syrian Ministry of Economy directed the country’s customs officers to expedite the admission of “Wafa”-related cellular equipment. These shipments contained antennas and other communications equipment given to the Syrian Ministry of Defense, in addition to the equipment required to create civilian cellular networks.
As can be seen, Iran deploys a wide network of shell companies to penetrate the Syrian communications industry and obtain control over crucial communications infrastructures. This is another significant step in Iran’s entrenchment in the country, which also increases its intelligence control over what is happening there. Furthermore, Iran’s control of one of the country’s only three cellular carriers is expected to earn profits in the tens of millions of dollars, allowing it to avoid sanctions.
It is also worth noting that this move enhances Iran’s position vis-à-vis Russia, which has previously secured many projects to rebuild infrastructure in Syria at the expense of Iran. At this point, it is unclear whether this represents the start of a shift in the Syrian regime’s inclinations or simply a necessary move arising from Assad’s need to recoup part of Iran’s investment in keeping his rule.