The Land of Opportunity: Who Gains the Most Out of Syria's Civil War?

How economy transformed by conflict creates new elites

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The Syrian flag with President Bashar Assad's face, near Damascus.
The Syrian flag with President Bashar Assad's face, near Damascus. Credit: Hassan Ammar / AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The civil war in Syria isn't all bad news. Some people are doing very well and have even become millionaires as a result of the incessant conflict. One such person is Rami Makhlouf, cousin of President Bashar Assad. Despite the sanctions imposed on him by the United States and some European countries, he's still developing his business and has even launched a new company and named it after himself, at an investment of $5 million.

Makhlouf, thought to be the wealthiest man in Syria, manages the Assad family's business and therefore has more control over how economic decisions are taken than the economy ministers. He has made his fortune in construction, importing, the media and Syriatel, the mobile service provider that he heads. He has also been representing state-owned and private Iranian companies that have received permission to invest in Syria as part of Assad's repayment to the Iranians for their military and economic assistance.

Still, Makhlouf has powerful competition: Samer Foz, who is also a Turkish national and maintains very close ties with the Syrian intelligence community. Foz has also suffered sanctions, before which he made his money snapping up chunks of Islamic banks operating in Syria, through which he ran an efficient financing network that bypassed sanctions imposed on the country.

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Foz, a Sunni Muslim, set up shell companies outside Syria that moved money around and financed investments by people close to the Assad regime who couldn't obtain financing otherwise.

Alongside these two tycoons are a number of businessmen who provide an economic safety net to the regime, and mainly to the Assad family. Among them is Mohammed Hamsho, a friend of Maher Assad, the president's brother. Hamsho was responsible for money laundering for Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq two decades ago, and also signed the oil agreements between Iraq and Syria before the war against Iraq, when Saddam's republic was hit by international sanctions.

Hossam al-Katerji is another businessman serving the regime. He operates out of northern Syria and the Kurdish areas, and set up the oil smuggling system for the Islamic State when it seized Syria's oil fields. Katerji created the paradox of the Assad regime buying its own oil from ISIS for well below market price, thus helping fund the group.

The great flow to northern Syria

Those are just a few of the people who are funding the Assad family and are positioned to benefit greatly from Syria's reconstruction. Meanwhile, opportunities abound to make money while the war continues. For example, Syrians are streaming toward the country's northern regions that are considered relatively safe. Hundreds of thousands of uprooted people have reached the northern area surrounding Idlib province and the Kurdish enclaves.

These refugees are having a hard time finding affordable places to stay. Homeowners have raised asking prices by double-digit and even triple-digit percentages. The government and construction companies belonging to friends of the regime are also getting into the act. The most recent project involves building thousands of apartments near the Turkish border. The dwellings are slated to be low-cost, with a two-room apartment going for about $5,000 – of which $1,000 will be payable in advance and the rest in $150 installments a month, roughly the level of rent in the area.

Those prices may sound laughably low to Israelis, but if you're earning $150 or $200 a month, that isn't affordable either. The upshot is that only the relatively affluent can buy these apartments and then rent them out to the uprooted who can't afford to buy a home themselves. Thus new elites are created, people who have a little more than their neighbors while the new homeowners and their tenants will depend on the construction companies funding the projects. These in turn owe their earnings to the Syrian regime.

That was how things worked in Syria before the war too. Only the clients have changed.

The circle of winners from the war encompasses not only Syrian businessmen but Iranian and Russian ones as well, but they represent countries that are Damascus' allies. Turkey on the other hand is considered an occupier and the Syrian regime would like it to withdraw its forces. Damascus certainly isn't going to give Turkey any projects.

Turkey does, however, have an economic lever to wield. It took the city of Afrin in northern Syria and controls districts in north-central Syria along the border. Tens of thousands of uprooted Syrians have reached Afrin, with the encouragement of Ankara, which sees immigrants as an efficient way to dilute the Kurdish population, which views Turkey with hostility. The new settlers enjoy not only relative safety but also economic support from Turkey. It seems that Turkish companies will soon be building homes for these uprooted, to encourage them to stay.

Such economic niches  exploiting the problems of the displaced and the refugees, seizing assets abandoned by people who fled, and mafias running infrastructure  have turned Syria into a land of opportunity instead of offering the planning needed for rebuilding the country.

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