Iranian, Chinese Cars Rev Up In Sanctioned Syria

In December, a video of a Syrian man presenting his girlfriend with a brand-new yellow Camaro convertible in the middle of Ummayad Square in central Damascus went viral on social media. But the flashy romantic gesture, involving a conspicuous American car model, soon gained the attention of the authorities and turned into a nightmare for the couple. The car had been stolen, likely smuggled through northeastern Syria, and its license plate altered, leading to its confiscation and the arrest of the man. Authorities were tipped off by two clues. One was that it was an American car, the second being its year of production: 2016.

“There are no brand-new cars in Syria – certainly no American ones,” laughed Abu Hekmat, a famous car dealer in the neighborhood of Barzeh, north of the capital.

“The fact that it was an American car also aroused immediate suspicion,” he told Asia Times, adding: “The only new American cars that we have are those smuggled from territories where the Americans are based [east of the Euphrates River].” In cities like Hassakeh and Qamishly, currently in the hands of US-backed Kurdish militias, 2018 models are all over the place, mostly Chevrolets, Range Rovers, and Ford SUVs and cars.

Due to US-led sanctions, however, the last shipment of modern cars that came to Damascus was in late 2011. The showrooms that once looped around the town of Harasta on the outskirts of Damascus were later torched or destroyed in the crossfire of fighting. Government troops regained control of the area earlier this year, but not a single showroom has re-opened because international carmakers stopped doing business with Syria.

In their absence, Asian carmakers have stepped into the fray, most notably from Iran and China.

Made in Iran  

Before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, an experimental new Iranian-made car garnered scant interest among the Syrian populace. The “Sham,” a joint venture between the Syrian and Iranian governments, sold for 725,000-875,000 Syrian pounds ($14,500-$17,550), a competitive price at the time. But most Syrians preferred Western brands, and so the car did very poorly in Damascus.

Syrians were similarly unenthusiastic about Peugeots, locally assembled by Iran Khodro, the same Iranian company behind the Sham.

In recent years, however, Syrians looking to purchase a new vehicle have found themselves with no other choices. And they are not getting a deal. 

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