17 April 2020- “Iranian businesses in Syria risk becoming complicit in the continuation of crimes, such as forced displacement which is recognised as a type of crime against humanity,” Justice for Iran proposed in a submission to the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights.

The submission, Destruction and Reconstruction of Syria: Complicity of Iranian Businesses in Forced Displacement and Other Violations’ focuses on the continuation of forced displacement of millions of Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) through policies and laws governing reconstruction in Syria. Whether these laws and policies formerly existed or were newly adopted, they are formulated and implemented in practice to discriminate against and punish civilians perceived to be opposed to the government, and to reward loyalists. Justice for Iran strongly suspects the Iranian government enterprises and private sector to be accomplices to this.

Justice for Iran submitted this report in response to the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights’ call for input on the practical steps states and business enterprises should take to implement the Guiding Principles in conflict and post-conflict contexts. It has collected data from the companies’ websites and other publicly available sources and identified 52 Iranian businesses active in the post-conflict situation in Syria. This provides a glance at some of the current or recent business activities in Syria. In addition, Justice for Iran has reviewed other publicly available reports about bilateral economic relations between Iran and Syria, and with the assistance of Syrian experts, has put it into the context of the Syrian conflict from the perspective of destruction and reconstruction.

Under the guise of reconstruction, the Syrian regime has systematically demolished neighbourhoods it had recaptured, blocked access to their inhabitants, and issued dozens of discriminatory laws to displace residents and seize property rights of refugees and IDPs. Such laws also provide a legal framework for ownership to be reverted to the Syrian government, empowering it to award reconstruction and development contracts to Assad’s cronies and war allies. These efforts attempt to eradicate the populations perceived as opposition, and hence can be seen as the continuation of the destruction strategy.

At least 10 Iranian companies have physical presence in Syria through factories, land or offices and branches.  However, the terms under which purchasing the land or leasing the properties have been concluded are uncertain. In addition, one of the highly encouraged ways of investment in Syria is to establish shared companies with Syrian individuals and/or entities, hence Iranian businesses are increasingly establishing joint stock companies with Syrian individuals and entities with potential problematic ties with the Syrian regime.

“Iranian businesses do not seem to understand the gravity of the situation in post-conflict Syria, nor do they show any regard for international standards. They are competing to benefit from the proceeds of war crimes and entering into partnerships with war criminals,” says Mohammad Nayyeri, Justice for Iran’s business and human rights programme manager.

The Syrian war has been the most devastating conflict of the 21st century. Almost 207,000 civilians have been killed since 2011, approximately 25,000 of them being children. As of March 2019, roughly 5.7 million Syrians have fled the country, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and more than 6.1 million people are internally displaced, meaning half of the population have left their land and thousands of homes and workplaces behind.

There is overwhelming evidence that international crimes have been committed by all parties in the war, predominantly by the Assad regime and its allies.  War crimes, including indiscriminate attacks against civilian populations, intentional targeting of protected objects, medical personnel, and transport, deliberate attacks against humanitarian relief personnel, denial of humanitarian aid, and forced displacement, have been committed across Syria.

”The destruction in Syria cannot be simply reduced to the physical manifestation or collateral damage of the conflict. Destruction is a systematic strategy that encompasses multiple forms of human rights violations and war crimes. It is a deliberate act linked to post-conflict reconstruction and with far-reaching structural implications,” Sawsan Abou Zainedin, architect and urban development planner, and the cofounder of Sakan Housing Communities, said.

Several studies have documented that when in 2012 it became impossible to save the Assad regime with training, technology and artillery support alone, the Islamic Republic of Iran began its intervention in the Syrian conflict; first using its regular forces and subsequently, augmenting them with irregular forces.  In other words, an intervention from afar in a civil revolution transformed into a full-scale military intervention in a civil war. In the period up to 2019, it is estimated that Iran has spent an excess of $16 billion on the war in Syria, running thousands of regular and irregular forces, at least 2,100 of whom were officially acknowledged to have died by 2017.

Iranian entities are now engaged in competition over access to the Syrian economy, with a particular interest in the energy and construction sector. Iran demands to have a share in reconstruction contracts, not only to compensate for the great costs of its intervention, but also because it sees reconstruction as an opportunity to pursue its strategic regional aims and to secure future influence and presence in Syria.