The Ba’ath party regime of the former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad was the first to recognize and legitimize the Islamic revolution of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran. However, Assad made sure that Iran never expanded its influence in Syria, as it did later in Lebanon through Hezbollah.
The desperation of his son and successor Bashar al-Assad gave the Iranian expansionists their chance. The Iranian armed forces invaded Syria shortly after the civil war began a decade ago to defend the younger Assad regime against rebels. Tehran supported the Syrian regime in the war along with its Lebanese deputy Hezbollah and even enrolled Shiite fighters from Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan to support the cause. Over time, Iran recruited local Syrian fighters into militias, ostensibly to guard Shiite shrines, and intensified ties with the higher levels of the Syrian military apparatus, particularly the 4th Division headed by one of Hafez al-Assad’s other sons, Maher al-Assad, was led.
A decade after the conflict began, Iranian-backed militias control the outskirts of Damascus and patrol strategic cities on the Syrian-Lebanese border. They are present in large numbers in southern Syria near Israel, have several bases in Aleppo and have also settled in towns and villages on the Syrian-Iraqi border since the defeat of the Islamic State in 2018.
But Iran has not only secured its influence from Tehran via Iraq and Syria to Lebanon through weapons. In recent years, as the military conflict subsided, Iran has expanded its cultural influence in the war-torn nation to encourage Sunnis to convert to Shiism, or at least to soften their attitudes towards their sectarian rivals. Foreign policy spoke to recent converts and their friends in regime-held Syria, who said the economic collapse in Syria has made it difficult to ignore the perks offered by Iran.
Iran is distributing money to needy Syrians, a lot of indoctrination in religious seminars, scholarships for children to study in Iranian universities, free health care, food baskets and trips to tourist attractions to promote conversion. Such small measures are not costly, but could have a major impact on how Iran is viewed among impoverished Syrians.
It has restored old shrines and built new ones from revered Shiite figures, almost like trying to rewrite the religious history of Syria, which is predominantly Sunni and had a very small Shiite population before the war. Around a dozen locals, activists and Syrian analysts told foreign policy that Iran is trying to present itself as a benevolent power to promote long-term support for Sunni Syrians, with the ultimate goal of maintaining its sphere of influence and exercising proxy control. like in Lebanon and Iraq.
The Iranian militias were actively supported by the Syrian regime under its infamous Decree 10 to buy houses from Syrians who immigrated elsewhere during the war. Some militiamen have also reportedly confiscated property and brought their families from Iraq and Lebanon to settle in Syria.
Syrian experts say this demographic and cultural penetration is aimed at increasing the number of Shiites in Syria so that Iran can claim political power on their behalf. If there are a significant number of Shiites in the country, Iran can claim to represent its interests when a final political solution to the Syrian crisis is discussed and it can request that they be given positions in the government, the armed forces and the government other institutions are transferred. Many fear that Iran wants to exert influence through supporters within the system, rather than just a responsible president, whose support may fluctuate depending on its dealings with Russia and the United Arab Emirates, which have tried to bring it back into the Arab community .
However, unlike Lebanon and Iraq, Syria is predominantly Sunni, and that makes it a difficult task for the Iranian regime. Despite the challenges, Iran seems unwavering.
24-year-old Ahmad, who speaks to FP on condition of anonymity, is one of the newest members of the Shiite community in Syria. He lived in Mayadeen, a town on the border with Iraq in Deir Ezzor Governorate in eastern Syria, but fled to Bab near Turkey during the conflict with his family. He returned in 2018 when his friend told him that all his worries could end if he joined an Iranian militia. As a Sunni, he joined the Sayyidah Zaynab battalions, named after the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammed and the daughter of Imam Ali, the Shiite patriarch.
“My friend in al-Mayadeen said I could come back and join the Iranians and no one would hurt me or my family,” Ahmad told the foreign policy of Set Zaynab, a city that is 6 miles from the sanctuary of Sayyidah Zaynab located south of Damascus and completely under the influence of Iranian-backed militias.
Ahmad works as a security guard at the shrine and is paid Syrian pounds 100,000 (about $ 200) a month, but he needed more money to pay for his father’s kidney dialysis twice a month. In February the leader of his militia offered to double his salary if he converted to Shiism himself. Ahmad immediately agreed. “We recently had a meeting with our militia leader who said we would get promoted and get money if we convert to Shiism and only hear a few lectures in Sayyidah Zaynab,” he told Foreign Policy. “I said yes with 20 other men because we all need money. If I’m Shiite, I’ll get 200,000 Syrian pounds. I really need the money because of my father’s treatment. I don’t care about religion. “
Taim al-Ahmad, from Daraa, a city in southwest Syria near Jordan, told a similar story of a friend who first joined an Iran-backed militia and later converted to Shiism. “They promoted him and gave him an apartment,” he said. “Despite the economic crisis in Syria, he receives free medical care and a monthly gas bottle.” Taim al-Ahmad said his friend had suddenly been denied benefits for other Syrians, including a security permit from Syrian intelligence to travel “without harassment” anywhere in the country.
Deir Ezzor Province is perhaps the key area for these operations. Abu Kamal, a city at the provincial crossroads with Iraq, has seen many seemingly harmless but manipulative Iranian activities in the recent past.
For example, it restored the Qarameesh Park in Abu Kamal, which was destroyed by the Islamic State, and renamed it “Friends Park”. (The Syrian regime touts Iran as a “friend of the country”.) Every week, Iranian militias organize fun activities in the park to educate people, mostly children, about Shiite imams and to promote Iran as a righteous force supporting Israel and the Imperialism challenges.
“All of the fun and games are a ploy to indoctrinate the minds of children and their parents in order to lure them into converting to Shiism,” said Sayah Abu Walid, an activist from Abu Kamal. The city’s sports club has turned into a kitchen and restaurant for Iranian militias. The entire football stadium is now practically a basis for an Iranian takeover, said Abu Walid.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based observer, Iran recently invited the Mayad people to Iran’s Nour Cultural Center for a course on the principles and teachings of the Shiite religion. At the end of the course, everyone who passed was given money, around 100,000 Syrian pounds, and a basket of groceries.
Iran has opened a number of religious schools, shrines, and charities in Syria. While there was less resistance in Damascus and Aleppo, in order to expand into Deir Ezzor, Iran had to attract local tribal leaders, who are often more interested in their own survival and would support the rising star. Some members of one such tribe, al-Bakara, have reacted positively to the Iranians, mainly because of a tribal leader who sees an advantage in favoring Iran.
Across the border, Iran’s interests are well protected by militias such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, an armed group that supports Tehran but operates under the banner of the People’s Mobilization Forces as part of the Iraqi security services. Furthermore, Russia’s lack of interest in Deir Ezzor means Iran doesn’t have to compete to build a camp there.
Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat who is currently in exile in the US, said the Iranian presence and activities laid the seed for a future uprising in his country. “There must be clashes to face the Persian invasion,” said Barabandi. “First the Iranians and Hezbollah went to Alawite-dominated Latakia. But the Alawites are an open society when it comes to religion and social norms. For example, they like their drink. Alawites said goodbye to the Iranians and wished them good luck. The Iranians found it easier to manipulate the Syrians worst hit by the war and thus the expansion to areas previously occupied by the Islamic State. “
Navvar Saban, a conflict expert at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies who specializes in Syria-Iran relations, said Iran has slowly but steadily cultivated relations with Syrians of all origins. “Iran has bought real estate in Deir Ezzor and Kurdish areas through locals,” he said. “They have woven a spider web in Syria and have their people everywhere, in the army, in government, even among Sunni and Christian businessmen.”
Former US President Donald Trump imposed weakening sanctions on the Iranian regime as part of his “maximum pressure” campaign, but Iran’s undeclared credit line to the Assad regime has continued to fund its activities in Syria. In August 2017, on a reporting trip to Syria, I attended the country’s first fair in Damascus in six years. Most of the kiosks, 31 of which were owned by Iranian companies, selling everything from power plants to cookies and soap. Two years later, the Syrian-Iranian Joint Chamber of Commerce was established, and just last month an Iranian delegation traveled to Damascus to intensify efforts to improve their economic footprint in Syria.
Observers fear that Iran, which has never stopped its intervention in Syria despite Trump’s sanctions, will flood money to its armed militias and charities to promote conversion in Syria once the new US President Joe Biden rejoins the nuclear deal. Two years after signing the Iranian nuclear deal, Tehran is said to have quadrupled its funding for Hezbollah.
There is no data on how many Syrians Iran converted to Shiism or how many it softened towards its ideas. But its military, cultural and economic expansion creates new fault lines in a country that is already fragile on all fronts. It is easy to see how Iran’s expansion could exacerbate sectarian tensions in the region.