NGO investigation unearths links between Syria’s Wafa Telecom and Iran

NGO investigation unearths links between Syria’s Wafa Telecom and Iran

Syria’s newest operator Wafa Telecom has been linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) by an investigation conducted by the NGOs OCCRP (Organised Crime and Corruption and Reporting Project) and OPENSyr (Observatory of Political and Economic Networks).

Established in 2017, Wafa was issued an operating licence in February 2022. Syria’s government claimed the firm to be domestically owned, but otherwise information was scarce on both the company and its shareholders. Concurrent reporting indicated that Wafa was owned by Syrian businessmen with links to the Assad government, allowing the firm to award contracts to Iranian vendors and thereby satisfy Tehran’s demands for expanded business dealings in Syria.

However, the investigation by OCCRP and OPENSyr found that among Wafa’s shareholders were a number of international businesses linked to the IRGC. The NGOs’ report quotes an unnamed telecom sector source identified as a Syrian businessman and former government official as saying that Wafa is “a partnership between the Syrian government and the Revolutionary Guard.”

According to the report, upon its establishment, 48% of shares in the state operator were held by Wafa Invest, a domestic firm co-founded by Yasar Ibrahim – a former aide to Assad who faces US and EU sanctions for acting as his financial proxy. At an unspecified later time, Wafa Invest had its stake in the operator slashed to 28%, with state-backed Syria Telecom taking the freed-up 20% holding.

The majority (52%) shareholding in Wafa Telecom was held by Arab Business Company (ABC), which the Syrian government maintained was locally owned. However, local reporters were able to secure a registry document that identified ABC as having both Syrian and Malaysian shareholders.  According to the NGOs’ report, Malaysian-registered Tioman Golden Treasure has substantial connections through both its current and past owners and officials to both companies and individuals linked to the IRGC – with many under international sanctions.

Before Wafa received its operating licence, Iran had been pushing for Syria to allow an Iranian-owned operator into Syria’s telecoms market to allow Tehran to recoup some of the money it had poured into supporting the Assad regime. TeleGeography notes that a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on the matter was signed in January 2017, along with a number of expanded cooperation agreements between the countries. However, a provisional deal to issue a mobile licence to Mobile Communication Company of Iran (MCI) was dropped for security reasons.

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