Jana al-Issa | Hassan Ibrahim
The northern Idlib region, which is controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), has witnessed an economic, service, and investment flourish during the past two years, during which the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) took the lead as a contractor of some projects, or as a legal authority that licensed and set up projects, in light of multiple goals.
Although the Salvation government has limited its projects to the service sector, such as paving roads, repairing sewage lines to some major city networks, or maintaining a number of vital facilities, it still controls the region’s most prominent resources and limits them to certain companies, such as fuel and electricity.
Over the past years, many “huge” investment projects in several fields, including industrial, commercial, or service, have been launched in the Salvation areas, which opened the door to speculations on the extent to which the Salvation government is able to finance itself through facilitating the establishment of these projects and the extent of the HTS finance for such investments in the absence of international financial support.
Enab Baladi tries to shed light on the gains that the Salvation Government and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham aspire to achieve from the newly-established investments in Idlib and how these projects are reflected on people’s daily lives.
In this file, Enab Baladi also explains the nature of the investment climate in the northern region in regard to the security situation and economic risk.
Political and financial gains are behind it
Salvation Govt approaches the investment door
At the end of 2021, the construction officially began to establish an industrial zone in the Bab al-Hawa border area with Turkey, and is still going on.
The industrial district is considered the first in the areas of control of the Salvation government of the northern Idlib governorate.
In the first half of this year, 139 partitions, at a rate of only 20 percent, were completed in the industrial city, according to a report by the Salvation government on completed work.
The implementation rates of the water supply network in the industrial city established by the Salvation government reached 50 percent, the electricity network 40 percent, main and secondary streets 60 percent, sewage network works 85 percent, artesian wells 60 percent, and public utilities 10 percent.
Many investment projects have emerged in and around Idlib city, including shopping centers (malls) and commercial markets instead of random ones.
The Salvation government also facilitated the arrival of electricity to Idlib in May 2021, after several years of interruption, by agreeing to the work of the Green Energy company.
The Salvation government also granted Syriana Communications Company, last May a license to operate as the first cellular operator in the region, following reports circulated by several local pages about “the approaching date of the opening of (Syria Phone), as the first cellular telecommunications company in Idlib,” and about its affiliation with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, without Enab Baladi being able to verify the credibility of these reports so far.
Engineer Mustafa Haj Latouf, director of the Central Technical Services in the Local Administration Ministry, confirmed to Enab Baladi that the Salvation government areas are witnessing during this period urban activity in several areas, including residential, commercial, service, investment, and industrial.
Haj Latouf added that the region in general, especially the al-Dana and Sarmada towns, is also witnessing remarkable activity in terms of building huge commercial complexes.
The number of licensed commercial and investment projects reached 283 projects in Idlib from the beginning of 2021 until now, in addition to licensed residential buildings (the number was not mentioned) by the local councils, according to Latouf.
The Ministry of Economy, in an official statement to Enab Baladi, said the Salvation government supports licensing projects based on “the needs of the region, the size of the project, and the eligibility to establish specific projects over others,” considering that they all contribute “significantly” to employing the workforce and improving income levels.
Reviving economy will financially serve HTS
The Salvation government has proven that it is more capable of improving its area of control from an organizational and urban point of view, despite the fact that these areas are more threatened with bombardment than the areas controlled by the Turkish-backed Syrian Interim Government (SIG) in Aleppo countryside and despite the large number of residents and IDPs compared to the Interim areas of control, says the economist, Dr. Karam Shaar.
The director of the Syrian program at the Observatory of Political and Economic Networks added to Enab Baladi that this draws attention, especially in light of the difficulty of the Salvation government obtaining international recognition and the lack of opportunities to do so, which is not considered that difficult for the Interim government.
Dr. Shaar believes that the new investments and the revitalization of the economic situation in general, which Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) controls, primarily benefit the people associated with the de-facto ruling group, relying on several previous investment experiences that the HTS was behind, but without an official announcement.
For his part, Yahya al-Sayed Omar, a political economy researcher, said that any government in the world would like to support its economic indicators, stressing to Enab Baladi that investments are the most effective economic lever in helping macro and microeconomic indicators, which is directly reflected on the Salvation government.
“Founding a State” Project
The presence of real investments in the areas under the control of the Salvation government would support it economically, which would reflect on it politically, so this is directly in its interest, confirms al-Sayed Omar.
Dr. Shaar, on the other hand, believes that controlling governance in northwestern Syria achieves to the HTS several goals, including an “existential” objective related to its ability to control the region, which means that it is able to “survive.”
He added that other goals are to obtain revenues and financial returns as a result of the ability to control the region’s governance properly.
Shaar believes that the leader of HTS, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, is striving to “found a state,” so he is currently entering the stage of building institutional work in which he believes.
The Syrian economist considered that al-Golani’s project was no longer a “militia” project that gets its money through theft and extortion but rather turned into a “state building” project.
Shaar emphasized that the success or failure of this project is not only related to al-Golani’s success or not but also to political factors, neighboring countries, and major countries.
Salvation Govt, HTS: “thorny” relationship
With a military grip by al-Golani, Tahrir al-Sham sought to extend its authority over Idlib governorate and the northern countryside of Hama, and part of the western countryside of Aleppo, and in a disguised manner and in the face of the need for a civilian body to manage the area, the Salvation government was formed on 2 November 2017.
A year and a half after its founding, the Salvation government extended its administrative influence and control over all aspects of life in the northern region, following an agreement between the HTS and the National Front for Liberation (NFL), which stipulated making the entire area affiliated with the Salvation government.
The HTS’ Civil Administration of Services of water, electricity, transportation, and others, was all handed over to the Salvation government.
The Salvation government, which began with 11 ministerial portfolios and settled on ten ministries, arose in light of complexities and internal conflicts and the international presence of Idlib in international political discourses, the conflict of which indicates the instability of the region, in addition to the HTS indirect control, economically and in terms of service.
After HTS took control of the region on military and security levels, following the most prominent expansion of it after the battles against the Ahrar al-Sham Movement, Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, and Suqur al-Sham faction during 2017 and 2018, the features of the HTS’s economic control gradually began to become clear despite the existence of the Salvation Govt in an unclear relationship with the HTS.
Moreover, accusations arose that HTS was behind many projects that were described as “monopolistic.”
The features of this control were manifested in the appearance of al-Golani on 23 November 2021, and his talk about subsidizing bread with more than 3 million US dollars, and about supporting government bakeries and bakeries operating in the region, and the support included from 35 to 40 bakeries as an emergency solution in the midst of a suffocating crisis experienced by the region.
Who manages who?
The HTS role has emerged significantly through the gradual funding and management of economic projects in the region.
Such mounting economic role can be summarized in the pledges and promises made by al-Golani during his frequent appearance on many service and economic issues and his ascension to the platform of speaking and discourse in meetings, reviewing many projects, and encouraging the creation of an investment environment, amid the presence of personalities and members of the Salvation government.
The Economy Ministry ignored Enab Baladi’s questions about the role of HTS in managing these projects and the extent to which the Salvation government and Tahrir al-Sham benefited from them. The only answer was that “the government bears the responsibility to undertake large investment projects and encourages companies to do so.”
Dr. Abdul Rahman al-Haj, a religious movements expert, told Enab Baladi that the Salvation government is under the absolute control of Tahrir al-Sham, adding that it is a civil front that bears the burdens of civil responsibilities, while the Tahrir al-Sham is devoted to strengthening control and security, and strengthening its imports, capabilities, and armament.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham considers itself as the army institution in its areas of control, which allows it to take the largest share of all the resources it accesses.
The army in wartime takes the largest part of the budget, and the HTS thinks the same way because it sees itself as a de-facto and stable force, and therefore works to establish itself for the future, and it wants to be a force to be reckoned with in any future plans in the region.
Dr. Abdul Rahman al-Haj
A Syrian researcher specializing in religious movements
The HTS has the ability to control and put strategy, while the Salvation government has some experience, according to al-Haj.
It is noticeable that a number of Salvation government ministers, since its establishment, are civilians who defected from the regime’s institutions, and they have some bureaucratic experience in running executive institutions of a governmental nature, according to the researcher.
“The one who manages the economic resources and sets the general strategy is the HTS and perhaps al-Golani individually, but the one who implements the strategy and sets the necessary policies for its implementation are government employees,” al-Haj said.
Al-Golani appeared in a meeting with a number of working figures and dignitaries in northern Syria on 21 March. At the time, accounts close to the HTS stated that the meeting came in response to an invitation by the people in the Ariha and Jabal al-Zawiya areas in the southern countryside of Idlib.
In the absence of ministers and members of the Salvation government, the people’s questions and demands were directed to the HTS commander to consider and support them.
They also demanded al-Golani to find solutions to the piled difficulties that stand in the way of the people, even though the Salvation government is the one who runs the area administratively and denies its connection to the military faction.
According to Dr. al-Haj, the Salvation government is an executive institution that implements the strategy and general policy imposed by Tahrir al-Sham only.
“Al-Golani benefits from it in several ways, such as making it a civil front for the HTS that alleviates the burden of direct management of people’s daily lives by a military group”, he added.
Al-Golani recorded the demands of the people of Ariha, which called on him to direct the (Salvation) ministries to support legal and religious institutions and support the education and livestock sectors.
The HTS leader pointed out that the long and strategic construction of the region will reap its “fruits” later and that the institutions are built in a correct and orderly manner.
“We do not invent anything new. What distinguishes us is that we build in the shadow of war,” he said, adding that he is working on building infrastructure to create a suitable investment climate in the region.
The Salvation government’s presence relieves the HTS’ managing burden of people’s daily lives and gives the armed group some of the respect it needs by keeping it away from direct interference in people’s lives. Thirdly, the HTS benefits from the “bureaucratic expertise” that it does not possess, as the fighters do not have any administrative experience in public life, according to al-Haj.
The researcher pointed out that the local organizations that carry out service projects lessen the burden on the HTS, especially the infrastructure, education, and health.
The reflection of the HTS projects under the guise of the salvation government, or those run by contractors affiliated with Tahrir al-Sham, was not in the positive way that the residents were waiting for amid a deteriorating living reality in which they live, and many demonstrations took the streets calling for an improvement of living conditions.
Criticisms and resentment were leveled at the lack of human priority in the Salvation government and the HTS plans and the attempt to prove their legitimacy with service projects, accompanied by demands to improve the living conditions of the residents and the IDPs.
Noureddine Ibrahim, an elderly man of Idlib, told Enab Baladi that the Salvation government’s projects have made the economic situation better in terms of living and in terms of securing job opportunities.
Another Idlib-based Abu Ibrahim considered that the residents of Idlib did not see any improvement in their living conditions from these projects.
The young man explained that what matters to citizens is their easy access to their daily bread, food, and fuel, which does not happen, while these projects are considered “organizational” and that their benefit can be reflected on the merchants, those in charge of them or the wealthy people only.
In October 2021, Idlib city witnessed a demonstration rejecting the policy of the Salvation government in which the demonstrators protested against the soaring prices in general and fuel in particular, accusing the “Watad” fuel company and those behind it of “monopoly and exploiting people’s needs.”
On 10 May, the Idlib City Council, which is affiliated with the Salvation Government’s Local Administration and Services Ministry, issued a decision requiring the owners of stalls and stands within the city to remove occupancy and violations from streets and sidewalks in order to ensure the movement of citizens and cars.
The decision aroused the anger and resentment of the stands owners, who considered that the decision threatened their source of income.
The city council justified it by facilitating movement for citizens and cars, provided that alternatives are secured by opening popular mobile markets (bazaars) in different places in the city of Idlib during weekdays.
On 26 June, dozens of demonstrators in the center of Idlib city demonstrated against the Ministry of Endowments’ raising the rent of shops and real estate affiliated with it that harmed dozens of beneficiaries.
The demonstrators demanded an end to “the policy of domination over the population and the sharing of their livelihood.”
Is Idlib seeing more investments?
Investors often neglect an important first step in the process of international investing. The decision to invest overseas should begin with determining the riskiness of the investment climate in the country under consideration, according to the Investopedia website.
The investment climate is the economic, financial, social, and political conditions in a country that affect the willingness of individuals, banks, and institutions to lend to private companies operating in it.
What may hinder this climate is the “country risk,” which refers to the economic, political, and business risks that are unique to a specific country and that might result in unexpected investment losses, Investopedia said.
According to the report, the investment climate is affected by several indirect factors, including the level of poverty, crime rate, infrastructure, labor force participation, national security considerations, political stability, taxes, liquidity, financial market stability, the rule of law, property rights, and the regulatory environment, government transparency and accountability.
For his part, the academic researcher, Dr. Karam Shaar, believes that the investment reality in the HTS areas is attractive in some aspects and very bad in others.
The economist explained to Enab Baladi that the attractiveness of investment in Idlib comes from the fact that it has large numbers of available, qualified, and inexpensive labor, in addition to the region’s natural resources, which are primarily agricultural land.
However, on the other hand, the lack of clarity on the nature of the investment climate in northwestern Syria as a whole affects the desire of investors to enter into long-term investments, so most of the current economic activities are considered service rather than industrial, or perhaps light industrial, according to Shaar.
In turn, a researcher in political economy, Yahya al-Sayed Omar, says that attracting investments is not easy, as it needs a legislative, financial, and service environment, energy availability, tax facilities, and others.
Such factors that the Salvation government clearly lacks, and this is what makes any investment trend in its areas of control a “media issue rather than an economic one,” as he described.
Al-Sayed Omar believes that investing in the region remains a “theoretical effort,” especially in light of the lack of real and lasting stability.
The northern region is “subjected to a military escalation at any moment.” At the same time, this matter needs regional support, which is not currently available, especially in light of the lack of recognition of the legitimacy of the Salvation government.
The economic expert also considered that “it is not expected, and it is not practically possible, for the Salvation government-controlled areas to witness a real investment trend, as the economic, political, security and service environment is not ready to receive real investments in the foreseeable future.”
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