Iran Capitalizing on Post-Earthquake Conditions To Deepen Influence in Syria

Aleppo in the war (2016).

Aleppo in the war (2016).

… Local media sources also indicated that the excavation machinery of the Iranian IRGC-affiliated ‘Khatam al-Anbiya’ company began demolishing a number of residential buildings in the eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo, under the pretext that they were cracked as a result of the earthquake…”

On 6 February, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck near the Syria-Turkish border, damaging and destroying countless structures in surrounding areas and killing more than 50,000 people. The Syrian province of Aleppo was especially hard hit, with damages estimated as high as $3.2 billion, mostly in the eponymous provincial capital.[i]  Iran and its allied Iraqi factions from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) have provided much publicized assistance to parts of Aleppo, in ways that are likely to deepen their influence among the local population.  The accompanying excerpt, from the Syrian opposition news website Enab Baladi, highlights a visit to Aleppo by Ismail Qaani, Qasim Soleimani’s successor as head of the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force.  Qaani was the first foreign official to visit Syria after the earthquake, and his visit to Aleppo preceded that of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by two days. When al-Assad finally went to Aleppo, he met briefly with Abdel Aziz al-Muhammadawi (a.k.a. Abu Fadak), the head of PMF, who was there to oversee PMF post-earthquake assistance in Aleppo.  Like his predecessor, who was killed in the same strike that killed Soleimani, al-Muhammadawi is considered a close Quds Force ally.  According to the Enab Baladi report, al-Assad thanked al-Muhammadawi and his organization for their humanitarian assistance.  Iranian-backed entities are now seeking government permits to rebuild parts of the city, as they have across the war-ravaged suburbs of the Syrian capital Damascus in recent years.[ii]  The second accompanying excerpt, from the Qatari-aligned daily al-Araby al-Jadeed, explains how the IRGC-linked construction company Khatam al-Anbiya had demolished some buildings in eastern Aleppo and sought to lay the foundations for a future bastion of Iranian support in the area.

Other media reports have speculated that Iran also has used post-earthquake humanitarian aid as a cover to transfer weapons to Syria. The Israeli government was quick to warn of this possibility, and in early March, it bombed Aleppo airport, targeting purported Iranian drones being stored there.  As noted in the accompanying article, from the Saudi-aligned daily Independent Arabia, there are conflicting reports about what exactly was targeted, with some sources claiming it was drones transferred from a nearby, recently rehabilitated airbase that is now under Russian control (al-Jarrah), and others claiming it involved weapons brought in by land and air under the cover of humanitarian assistance.  Regardless, the strikes led to a temporary halt in operations at Aleppo’s airport, forcing a diversion of humanitarian aid flights and prompting UN and government officials to warn of dire humanitarian consequences.[iii]


“الحشد الشعبي” يضغط على النظام في حلب بشقق سكنية لمتضرري الزلزال

(PMF pressures the regime in Aleppo via apartment buildings for earthquake victims,)” Enab Baladi (Syrian opposition news website), 28 February 2023.

On February 8, Ismail Qaani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, visited Aleppo where he inspected earthquake victims’ conditions and supervised the work of Iranian rescuers at rubble-clearing sites, according to the Iranian Mehr News Agency. He was the first foreign official to arrive in Syria after the earthquake, and appeared in Aleppo two days before the head of the regime arrived in the city…

The researcher on Iranian affairs, Mustafa al-Nuaimi, explained that Iranian activity in Syria falls within two tracks, political and military…On the military level, the cargo planes that land in Aleppo and Damascus may be loaded with precision-strike missile technology and drones, although they were not bombed by Israel… this is a major military track that can be exploited under the guise of aid.

“إيران تعزز وجودها في حلب بذريعة مساعدة منكوبي الزلزال

(Iran strengthens its presence in Aleppo on the pretext of helping earthquake victims),” al-Araby al-Jadeed (Qatari-aligned daily), 4 March 2023.

Local media sources also indicated that the excavation machinery of the Iranian IRGC-affiliated “Khatam al-Anbiya” company began demolishing a number of residential buildings in the eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo, under the pretext that they were cracked as a result of the earthquake… the Reconstruction Office of the Khatam al-Anbiya Company offered to buy homes as-is from owners of earthquake-damaged or even undamaged homes in these eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo.

“ما السياق الإقليمي لضربات إسرائيل ضد إيران في سوريا؟

(What is the regional context for Israel’s strikes against Iran in Syria?)” Independent Arabia (Saudi-aligned daily), 10 March 2023.
Opposition media outlets reported that the bombing of Aleppo airport was due to the existence of a weapons and missile depot. The Israeli “Alma” Research Center (close to intelligence) reported that some of them had arrived by land through the Al-Qaim crossing with Iraq, in trucks transporting weapons with humanitarian aid for those affected by the earthquake that hit northern Syria and Turkey on 6 February, while some of these weapons also arrived in a plane to the airport. In another version, the opposition media outlet Orient Net indicated that the weapons were transferred from al-Jarrah Military Airport in Aleppo. The Russian army is now deployed there and allegedly asked the Iranians to transfer their equipment away from the base.


[i] “Global Rapid Post-Disaster Damage Estimation (GRADE) Report,” World Bank, 20 February 2023.

[ii] For more see: Lucas Winter, “Iran Cements its Presence in Syria,” OE Watch, 05-2019.  

[iii] According to the UN, the “closure could have severe humanitarian implications for people in Aleppo, one of the worst earthquake impacted governorates in Syria…We call on all parties to abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law, including by taking all feasible precautions to spare civilians and civilian objects in the conduct of hostilities.” See: “United Nations Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator ad interim for Syria, El-Mostafa Benlamlih statement on the Aleppo International Airport strikes,” 8 March 2023.

Image Information:

Image:  Aleppo in the war (2016)
Source: Louai Barakat,  
Attribution: CC 4.0