By Rana Sabbagh (OCCRP), Lara Dihmis (OCCRP), Sami Shahrour, Alexander Dziadosz (OCCRP), Karam Shaar (Opensyr.com), and Jacob Greenwald
When Syria issued its long-delayed third mobile phone license to a little-known operator early this year, officials trumpeted it as a moment of “great hope” for a sector battered by a decade of war and sanctions.
But when it came to naming the figures behind this company, Wafa Telecom, the Syrian government has been more reticent. Since Wafa received its license in February, authorities have said little about the firm’s owners beyond the fact that they are “national” companies — that is, Syrian.
In reality, not only do Wafa’s shareholders include foreign investors, those investors have multiple ties to Iran’s most powerful military body, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an investigation by OCCRP and the Observatory of Political and Economic Networks, a non-profit research institution, has found.
Wafa Telecom’s logo - Wafa Telecom
One of Wafa’s owners is a Malaysian company, which, until 2019, was directly owned by a Revolutionary Guard official, corporate records show. Two of the Malaysian company’s current corporate officers are also linked to firms that have been sanctioned for supporting the Revolutionary Guard.
A Syrian businessman and a former government official with direct knowledge of the sector also told OCCRP that Iran was involved in the new operator, with one explicitly calling it “a partnership between the Syrian government and the Revolutionary Guard.”
Iran, a key supporter of President Bashar Al-Assad throughout the war, has made it clear it expects economic payback for its backing. In recent years, it has established interests in Syria’s real estate, ports, and the lucrative phosphates sector, among others.
Joseph Daher, a professor at the European University Institute, said the involvement of Iran-linked figures in the new operator showed “the increasing influence of Iran in the Syrian economy” and represented “to some extent a new loss of sovereignty by the Syrian regime to its allies.”
The revelations may also raise alarm among Tehran’s regional adversaries, given the telecommunications sector’s importance to intelligence-gathering. Various powers have intervened in Syria’s multi-pronged civil war. Russian, Turkish, and U.S. troops are deployed in different parts of the country, and Israel regularly carries out air strikes.
Wafa Telecom, the Syrian Ministry of Communications and Technology, and Syria’s telecommunications regulator did not respond to requests for comment. Iran’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
Telecommunications masts on the hillside above Damascus, Syria - hanohikirf/Alamy Stock Photo
Iran’s Long-Established Interest
When Syria solicited bids for a third mobile license in 2010, it was supposed to be a watershed moment in the liberalization of an economy long dominated by the state. International giants, including France Telecom and the United Arab Emirates’ Etisalat, put down bids. So did an Iranian firm, which Syrian economic experts and media reports identified as the Mobin Trust Consortium, a Revolutionary Guard-affiliated conglomerate sanctioned by the EU and U.K.
Talks moved slowly as authorities and bidders haggled over terms. Before they could settle them, a popular uprising broke out in Syria in March 2011, and the license was put on indefinite hold. Meanwhile, Iran supported the Assad regime by funding militias and providing billions of dollars in economic and military aid.
The telecommunications sector has continued to make money over that time, despite a sharp decline in economic activity due to the conflict. In 2021, the country’s two existing operators, Syriatel and MTN Syria, together paid the government around 130 billion Syrian pounds — worth roughly $38 million at the average black market rates at the time — as the “state’s share” of revenues.
A Syriatel shop in Damascus, Syria - REUTERS/Alamy Stock Photo
That has made the sector an appealing prospect for Iran. In January 2017, Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis visited Iran and signed a memorandum of understanding to grant the third mobile license to the Mobile Telecommunications Company of Iran, or MCI, which was until 2018 partly owned by the Revolutionary Guard through the Mobin Trust Consortium.
But for unclear reasons, that deal never materialized. Statements from Syrian officials reported in the media suggested they were considering other options. They did not give a reason, but Daher pointed out that the sector was particularly sensitive because of its use in surveillance operations.
“In the past, there were rumors Syrian security services were rather uneasy about the prospect of the IRGC gaining access to the country’s telecommunications network,” he said.
Jihad Yazigi, an economist and editor-in-chief of the economic publication The Syria Report, also pointed out that there had reportedly been resistance from Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, the part-owner of the operator Syriatel, who did not want MCI to cut into Syriatel’s market share or use its national roaming system.
Over the following years, Assad’s cash-strapped government moved to assert control over the two existing operators. Starting in mid-2020, authorities accused Syriatel and MTN Syria of owing tens of millions of dollars in back taxes and, when they refused to pay, placed them under the control of state-appointed “custodians.”
Wafa Enters the Scene
When Wafa Telecom was granted the long-delayed third license — as well as a three-year monopoly to run the country’s first high-speed 5G network and permission to use the existing networks of the two other operators — it looked like just an extension of the regime’s efforts to control the sector.
A far cry from the global players who once eyed Syria, the new operator had only been established in 2017. About 48 percent of its shares were held by a Syrian company called Wafa Invest, co-founded by a young presidential aide named Yasar Ibrahim, now 39, who The Washington Post said played a key role in the “mafia-like” takeover of Syria’s telecoms operators.
Ibrahim — who has been sanctioned by the U.S., the EU, and the U.K. for acting as Assad’s financial proxy — did not respond to requests for comment sent through Syria’s presidential media office.
In 2021, Wafa Invest’s stake was reduced to 28 percent, and 20 percent was given to the state-owned Syrian Telecom, making the Syrian government a direct partner in the enterprise.
The remaining 52 percent was held by an opaque company called the Arabian Business Company (ABC), registered in October 2019 in the Damascus Free Trade Zone, where disclosure requirements are limited.
Syrian officials have declined to identify ABC’s owner. In public statements, they have characterized it as a “national company,” implying it was owned by Syrians, without saying more. But a registry document obtained by OCCRP shows that these statements were misleading.
At first glance, ABC’s corporate registration — obtained from the Syrian Ministry of Economy and Foreign Trade — gives little indication of Iranian involvement. Its shareholders are listed as a Syrian businessman and a Malaysian company called Tioman Golden Treasure, founded in February 2013.
A closer look reveals that Tioman is no ordinary telecoms investment vehicle, and in fact has multiple connections to the Revolutionary Guard.
Up until August 2019, about a year before ABC was registered, 99 percent of Tioman’s shares were held by a U.S.-sanctioned Iranian named Azim Monzavi, Malaysian records show. In its sanctions order, issued in May this year, the U.S. described Monzavi as “an IRGC official who facilitates oil sales on behalf of the IRGC,” including working out payments for oil from Venezuela’s state-owned energy company, PDVSA.