Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
- The Syrian regime is still fighting for its survival, a situation that demands the ongoing military involvement of Iran and Russia in the long process of consolidation. Since the beginning of its intervention in Syria, Iran has seen the conflict as an opportunity to take over the country. Accordingly, Iran threw into the battle its foreign legions (Lebanese Hizbullah, Iraqi, Afghani, and Pakistani formations) together with a corps of Iranian officers belonging to the Al-Quds Division under the command of Qasem Suleimani.
- Iran threw into the battle for Syria its foreign legions (Lebanese Hizbullah, Iraqi, Afghani, and Pakistani formations) together with a corps of Iranian officers belonging to the Al-Quds Division under the command of Qasem Suleimani.
- Iran seeks to create a Shiite belt beginning in Lebanon and stretching across Syria, Iraq, and Yemen to counter the pro-American Arab (and Israeli) axis led by Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Egypt.
- Hizbullah commands five Shiite militias in the Golan area, each numbering several thousand fighters, and has been busy preparing a military option against Israel since the recovery of the southern provinces of Syria.
- The real conflict between Iran and Russia in Syria resides in the ruthless race for the acquisition of post-civil war exclusive economic advantages derived from the reconstruction process that Syria supposedly will undergo in the near future.
- During the rule of Hafez Assad, Iran created a far-reaching network of educational, cultural, and religious institutions throughout Syria; it was further expanded during Bashar’s reign. The aim was to promote the Shiization of all regions of the Syrian state.
When Iran first came to the rescue of Bashar Assad’s disintegrating regime in Syria, its primary goal was to contain the rebels who had almost defeated the regime by controlling more than 60 percent of Syrian territory. With the active involvement of Russia beginning in September 2015, the Syrian regime not only stabilized but succeeded, together with its allies, to recover most of the territory lost to the rebels, with the exception of the northeastern territories held by the Kurds, and the northwestern Idlib enclave held by the Turkish assisted rebels and Al-Qa’eda/Jabhat al Nusra/ISIS operatives. However, the actual state of affairs is still problematic, and the regime is still fighting for its survival, a situation that demands an ongoing military involvement of Iran and Russia in the long process of consolidation.
While Russia’s role has been a purely military, political, and economic one, Iran has looked at the conflict since the beginning of its intervention in Syri as an opportunity to take over the country. In fact, the germ of Iran’s involvement in Syria began around mid-April 2013, when Hizbullah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, paid a secret visit to Tehran. There he met with the top Iranian officials headed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, Gen. Qasem Suleimani, in charge – among other things – of Iranian policy in Lebanon and Syria. Soleimani’s involvement in the meeting with Nasrallah was significant. He had been the spearhead of Iranian military activism across the Middle East.2
At that meeting, the Iranian leaders presented an operational plan that included three elements:
- The establishment of a popular sectarian army made up of Shiites and Alawites, to be backed by forces from Iran, Iraq, Hizbullah, and symbolic contingents from the Persian Gulf.
- This force was supposed to reach 150,000 fighters.
- The plan was to give preference to importing forces from Iran, Iraq, and, only afterward, other Shiite elements. This regional force was to be integrated with the Syrian army.
Suleimani himself visited Syria in late February-early March 2013 to prepare for the implementation of this plan. The Iranians expressed their ambition to turn Syria into a lynchpin of its Middle Eastern policy, in general, and of leading the jihad and the Islamic resistance to Israel, in particular. Hizbullah’s inclusion in the armed struggle in Syria was intended, primarily, to serve the Iranian strategy, which has been setting new goals apart from military assistance to the Syrian regime.
Mehdi Taeb, head of the Supreme Leader Khamenei’s think tank, voiced a critical expression of Syria’s centrality in Iranian strategy at that time. He stated that Syria was the “35th district of Iran” and it had greater strategic importance for Iran than Khuzestan [an Arab-populated district inside Iran]: “By preserving Syria we will be able to get back Khuzestan, but if we lose Syria we will not even be able to keep Tehran.” Significantly, Taeb was drawing a comparison between Syria and a district that is under full Iranian sovereignty.3 What was also clear from his remarks was that Iran could not afford to lose Syria.
As a result, in May 2014, a year after Taeb’s statement, Mohammad Eskandari, a senior commander in the Revolutionary Guards, stated that the Guards had trained 42 battalions and 138 brigades to fight in Syria. More significant was the pronouncement of yet another senior member of the Revolutionary Guards, Hussein Hamadani: “Iran has established a second Hizbullah in Syria” (akin to Hizbullah in Lebanon). Qasem Suleimani was the man responsible for the establishment of “Hizbullah Syria,” embracing volunteers and fighters from Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Afghanistan and Iran (excluding Iranians on active duty).
Accordingly, Iran threw into the battle its foreign legions (Lebanese Hizbullah, Iraqi, Afghani, and Pakistani formations) together with a corps of Iranian officers belonging to the Al-Quds Division under the command of Qasem Suleimani.4 The pro-Iranian legions took part in most of the battles against the rebels, while some of them were deployed (and still are) as garrisons around sensitive facilities and religious sites in and around Damascus.
The Immediate Goals of Iran Were:
To assist Bashar Assad’s Shiite regime against the wave of Sunni Jihadism directed, financed, and armed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Once stability was achieved, Iran would create a Shiite belt beginning in Lebanon and stretching across Syria, Iraq, and Yemen to counter the pro-American Arab (and Israeli) axis led by Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Egypt.
To exploit a unique situation on the ground which allowed Iran to create a proxy front against Israel (its arch-enemy) which stretches from south Lebanon to the south of the Syrian Golan while continuing to build the capabilities of Hizbullah in Lebanon along the Israeli-Lebanese border.
Taking an active part in the reconstruction effort of Syria, while securing strategic assets such as receiving the exclusivity of running the Latakia port, the door to the Mediterranean, allowing Iran to circumvent the Persian Gulf alternative.
Eight years after the beginning of the civil war, it a clear strategic goal is unfolding in Syria. Together with the continuation of the military buildup facing Israel both in Syria and Lebanon, and the ongoing presence of pro-Iranian legions deployed at sites mainly in the capital Damascus, there is the Iranian conquest of Syria transforming it into a Shiite-dominated state. At the same time, it continues to build a second front against Israel in the Golan area in case of a military clash between Israel and Iran, Israel and Hizbullah, and in the event of a U.S.-Iranian military conflict. Syria is included in the Iranian definition of its northern belt strategic depth, which begins in Lebanon and ends in Afghanistan, and the southern one that encompasses Yemen. Nothing is more revealing than this declaration of a senior Revolutionary Guard, Majeed Mazahei, who said, “If we withdraw support from our frontlines (Syria and Lebanon), the enemy will reach our borders.” This was amplified by former IRGC commander Seyyed Yahya Rahim-Safavi who declared, “Our defense border is in the south of Lebanon against Israel. The depth of our strategic defense has reached the shores of the Mediterranean on top of Israel. Westerners are concerned about the spread of Iran’s influence from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean.”5
Deployment of Pro-Iranian Forces
Eight years after the beginning of the Syrian civil war, the Iranian presence in Syria is as follows:
Deir el Zor area
According to intelligence sources, pro-Iranian forces have taken the desert town of Albukamal as their headquarters while Hizbullah units, the Iraqi Al Nujabaa militias, Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the Pakistani Zaynabiyoun militia, and the Afghani Fatimiyoun militia forces have deployed in the area.
Furthermore, Hizbullah has taken advantage of the Syrian geographical depth and relocated in northeast Syria, far from Israeli reach, its drone and missile factories, and especially those factories specialized in assembling long-range missiles capable of carrying very heavy and deadly precision warheads.
The Suweyda-Daraa area (south Syria facing Israel and Jordan):
Since July 2018, press reports have pointed at Iranian missiles deployed in the area near Suweyda, definitely not within the territorial demarcations announced by the Russians to Israel. According to the reports, Iran deployed missiles that were previously in the T4 airbase to the Ledja (a vast rocky lava area north of Suweyda) and to two additional airbases in the area: The two-strip Th’ala airbase (in the western suburbs of Suweyda) and Khalkhala (north of Suweyda on the highway leading from Suweyda to Damascus) after having totally razed to the ground eight local villages.
In the Th’ala airbase, reports have indicated that Hizbullah has occupied an empty building and has been monitoring the entrance to the base of special convoys, probably bringing Iranian missiles. The same has been reported regarding the Khalkhalah airbase.
Of late, reports have indicated that Iran has chosen the Al Nassiriya airbase, situated 10 kilometers northeast of the Lebanese-Syrian border town of Jayroud and 60 kilometers northeast of the capital Damascus to replace its missile depots near Damascus International Airport and the Al Mazzeh military airbase. These sites have been the targets of attacks by Israel several times, and Iran seeks to build new facilities in the area between the towns of Qutayfah and Al Nassiriya (south and north of Jayroud) for the production, assembly, maintenance and positioning of its missiles. According to intelligence sources, the one-strip Al Nassiriya air base has served as a center for missile launching: the airbase has 21 cemented silos and a further four silos, underground weapon depots, and is adjacent to two Scud missile battalions, one of which (Battalion 578) has gained fame for firing Scud missiles against the rebels.
The Iranian infiltration of the southern part of Syria has had an impact on the Syrian regular forces and pro-regime local militias, as well as political factions such as the Syrian National Party (Al Hizb Al Qawmi Al Souri) and the “Forces of the Shield of the Homeland” (Quwwat Dir’ Al-Watan). The Syrian Fourth Armored Division (deployed in the Daraa area) and the notorious and ruthless air force intelligence division cooperate very closely with Iran. The Fourth Division is coordinated by Iran and receives logistic and financial aid from the Revolutionary Guards while conducting security missions through an office installed in the headquarters of the Division responsible for recruitment.
No doubt that the most active element in the Iranian sphere is Hizbullah-Lebanon, which is, in fact, responsible for recruiting young Syrians to its ranks. Since 2018, Hizbullah has succeeded in recruiting 3,500 young people in the Daraa Department. Hizbullah has succeeded in establishing a presence through local allies in almost all villages and towns of the Daraa Department (Tel El Hara, S’aas’aa, Farka, Saida, Hosh Hamad, Ayb Al Ledja, Massika, Al Maliha Al Gharbiyah, Al Harak, Al Museyfra, Ghasm), while in the Suweyda Department, Hizbullah’s main ally is the former deputy commander of the Al ‘Amari brigades (active in the Daraa area) who is deployed along the Jordanian-Syrian border and the Ledja area with his Bedouin fighters.
Hizbullah fighters are among other military formations deployed in the Daraa area. Their deployment relies mainly on local Syrian Army regular formations, such as the 102nd Battalion, the Ninth Division, the Special Forces’ Fifteenth Division, the 89th Chemical Warfare Regiment (deployed in Jbab). Hizbullah’s mission is very well defined: monitoring all Israeli (and Jordanian) activities in the area, protecting sensitive installations of the Revolutionary Guards, such as the radar staffed by the Revolutionary Guards in Tel Miqdad, dissemination of IEDs (improvised explosive device) along the main roads of access, and intelligence gathering.
Hizbullah units in the southern part of Syria are under the “nominal” command of Mostafa Mughniyeh who is Imad Mughniyeh’s (Hizbullah military chief assassinated in Damascus in 2008) son and brother of Jihad Mughniyeh also killed in the Golan by Israeli fire while touring Hizbullah outposts in the Quneitra area. However, it seems that the actual commander of the Hizbullah units is one of the early members of Hizbullah, Munir ‘Ali Na’im Sha’ito, nicknamed “Hajj Hashem” who has been involved in the Syrian civil war since the beginning of the Hizbullah intervention in Al-Qusayr in 2013. The 50-year-old Sha’ito who was born in South Lebanon but lives in Damascus today was the deputy head of the Operational Unit for Palestine in 2000. He was promoted after the Second Lebanese War to the position of deputy commander of the elite Badr unit. A Hizbullah commander named Abu Hussein Sajed, also called “Al Hadjj Sajed,” according to intelligence sources, is said to be in charge of the “Golan file,” coordinated by Hizbullah leadership in Beirut in concert with directives coming from Tehran.
Hizbullah in the Quneitra Area
As a result of the directives sent to Hizbullah by its sponsors in Tehran and since the recovery of the territory of southern Syria from the rebels in July 2018, Iranian forces and Iranian proxies have infiltrated the area and tried to deploy as near as possible to the Israeli and Jordanian borders. The main goal is the Quneitra area, a border town in the Golan Heights on the main highway to Damascus and the principal entry to the Israeli-held Golan.
The Iranian drive to establish a presence facing Israel has encountered strong opposition from Israel which, on different occasions, made no doubt of its stance to prevent any consolidation of Iranian proxies in the area facing the Israeli border. To emphasize its resolve, on several occasions, Israel did not hesitate to target Iranian proxies and Iranian forces in the area. Presumably, Israel was behind the attack that killed Iranians commanders belonging to the Revolutionary Guards patrolling the area in 2015, and Hizbullah commanders of the Golan front – Samir Kuntar (2015), Jihad Mughniyeh (2015), and Mashour Zeydan (2019). However, despite repeated attempts by Israel to dislodge the Hizbullah and pro-Iranian fighters, either through bombing their positions or through the services of Russia who declared to have convinced Iran to deploy its proxy forces 80 kilometers from the Israeli border, Hizbullah has not been deterred. Its fighters have spread to the area bordering Israel, and currently, they mainly conduct scouting roles, intelligence gathering, and monitoring the IDF and the Jordanian Army activities on both the Israeli side and the Jordanian side of the border.
Hizbullah has succeeded in establishing four permanent training bases, which also serve as ammunition depots, and short and medium-range missile bases, three of which are in Daraa and the fourth in the area of Quneitra:
Haql Karim al Shimali, established in early 2019 in the Ledja lava fields northeast of Daraa and in proximity to a village bearing the same name; Ayb base established in September 2018 in the same Ledja area in the deployment area of the Ninth and Fifth Syrian divisions.
Ayb base was built after several villages were “emptied” of their inhabitants under the pretext that they served ISIS as a refuge.
The 52nd Syrian Brigade near Al Haraq (east of Daraa) also serves as a base for Hizbullah after the withdrawal of Hizbullah fighters from the Lebanese-Syrian border towns of Zabadani.
The fourth base, Al Hadr, was inaugurated with a high profile in October 2018. The base, known as “the Golan Unit,” is reportedly located in one of the companies of the 90th Syrian Brigade deployed between Hadr and Harfa north of Quneitra. According to reports, this base serves mainly as an intelligence gathering and eavesdropping outpost. The base is protected by a unit called “the Quneitra Hawks Brigade” (Liwa’ Suqur Quneitra) which assures its logistical link from the Al Sayyeda Zaynab shrine area near Damascus and the ‘Arna area and the Hermon mountain (Jabal El Sheikh) west of Damascus.Hizbullah presence is not limited to the four mentioned bases.
Hizbullah commands five Shiite militias in the Golan area, each numbering several thousand fighters, and has been busy preparing a military option against Israel since the recovery of the southern provinces of Syria in case of a surge of hostilities between Israel, Iran, the Syrian regime, and Hizbullah. This deployment in the area facing Israel in the Golan provides Iran (and Hizbullah) the ability to open a second front. This is the reason behind Hizbullah’s drive to infiltrate the whole area, extending from the Israeli border eastwards and the Jordanian border northwards to such an extent that Hizbullah fighters have been spotted in almost all the towns and villages of the area.
Hizbullah has been testing Israel’s reaction. Encouraged by a lack of response both from Israel and Russia, Hizbullah has been inching forward on the Quneitra perimeter and gaining new territory. Unprecedented until now, in June 2019, new positions manned by Hizbullah Lebanese fighters were deployed adjacent to the Israeli lines. These include positions in Tellet Aldrai’at and Tellet Al Mahir in the vicinity of the two small villages of Rafid and El ‘Isha, approximately 200 meters from the UNDOF checkpoint, controlling the central access from the Israeli Golan through Quneitra and from there to the main highway to Damascus.
Hizbullah’s Military Activities Are Varied
Hizbullah’s actions extend from preparing the ground and the operational plans for a potential conflict with Israel to stockpiling weapons and missiles to be used in time of war. Hizbullah has acquired mid-range missiles, some of them mounted on designated trucks, anti-tank weaponry, drone capabilities, and new anti-aircraft and anti-naval weapons.
Hizbullah has been the provider of manpower to guard strategic and sensitive installations. Such an intelligence outpost is Tel El Harra, a strategic military position 20 kilometers from the Israeli border, which overlooks Daraa, Quneitra, and the main highway from Daraa to Damascus. The outpost was the target of attacks attributed to Israel.
Originally built as an intelligence-monitoring center facing Israel, this outpost was a joint base for both the Syrian intelligence and the Russian Ministry of Defense. Until its fall into hands of the rebels in 2013, Tel el Hara was the deployment area of the 121st Mechanized Brigade, belonging to the Seventh Division.
In November 2018, Iran deployed a radar station on the eastern slopes of Tel al Harra and inaugurated an eavesdropping outpost manned by personnel belonging to the Revolutionary Guards.
One of Hizbullah’s top priorities is to enlist new recruits to its ranks from the local population (in the Ledja area the recruits come mostly from Bedouin tribes seeking to be hired for $250 U.S. dollars per month plus a bonus of the same amount in case of a successful operation). Courses are held four times a year and last from a few days to several weeks. The anti-tank weaponry course lasts 25 days, infantry 15 days, engineers 20 days, and 40 days for the special assassination task force called the “Zair” group.
Some of the courses are instructed in the field while others are held in Hizbullah’s Lebanese facilities. Those courses aim to infuse these recruits with the ideological tenets of Hizbullah and its Iran patron, instructing them in the handling and operation of different weapon systems (including missiles), building new fighting formations (mainly manned by paid Shiite mercenaries), assassination squads, and special forces. All instruction is under the supervision of a Hizbullah operative, Hassan Mansour Al Ruweydan, a Syrian citizen from the Al Massiqa village in the Ledja area.
The induction process is as follows: new recruits from the Ledja-Daraa-Suweyda areas are gathered in specified groups and transported to the eastern part of the territory where they meet Ghayth Maleq, a Lebanese whose mission is to register all recruits. As soon as the registration process is ended, the recruits are sent to the village of Ayb where Hizbullah has established a permanent presence. There, the groups are separated in clusters of six individuals under the command of a Hizbullah instructor and presented to the commander of the camp – a Lebanese member of Hizbullah nicknamed “Abu Wahid.”
Hizbullah has been conducting intelligence activities, including the collection of information on the Israeli side and eavesdropping, patrolling the main axis in the Syrian Golan, building an infrastructure that would halt or slow Israel’s eventual incursion towards the Syrian hinterland. All this is in preparation for a possible clash with Israeli forces and a prelude to the establishment of a front facing Israel in addition to the already prepared grounds of South Lebanon.
Conflict of Interest with Russia, Mutual Targeted Killings, and Economic Competition
The possibility of military escalation between Israel and the pro-Iranian forces and the risk ensuing to the stability of the Assad regime brought Moscow to broker an arrangement with Tehran according to which Iran would remove its proxies to an area 100 kilometers from the Israeli border (in fact, the withdrawal was within the 80-kilometer limit). Russia would deploy checkpoints at very specific locations to serve as a buffer between Israel and the pro-Iranian proxies.
However, due to the permanent infiltration efforts conducted by Iran and Hizbullah, a very unique situation has unfolded on the ground. Hizbullah and pro-Iranian proxies’ checkpoints, coordinated by the regime’s Fourth Division deployed in the area, have been erected almost adjacent to the Russian checkpoints. Pro-Iranian patrols have been patrolling the area in the very same axis patrolled by the Russians. As a result, frictions between the Russian and the pro-Iranian proxies occur from time to time, creating tensions between Moscow and Tehran.
Furthermore, due to that friction, local leaders supported by Russia and local chiefs of pro-Iranian militias have been conducting mutual targeted killings. This has increased the tension between the Russian forces on the ground, part of the Fifth Russian Corps deployed in Syria, and the pro-Iranian militias backed by the Syrian Air Force Intelligence and the Fourth Armored Division (which also includes elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards) deployed in the area.
The checkpoints have become the main issue between the Russian-sponsored local militias and the pro-Iranian proxies. The latter, camouflaged in Syrian army fatigues and waving the Syrian flag, have attempted to establish checkpoints and deploy Hizbullah and Revolutionary Guards elements in the vicinity of the Jordanian-Israeli-Syrian border area (known as the Yarmouk basin). Elements belonging to the Russian Fifth Corps, together with the Russian Military Police responsible for operating the checkpoints, have waged armed attacks to dislodge them and push them back beyond the Ledja volcanic lava area, northeast of Daraa. Most interesting was the establishment by the Russians of a local armed militia headed by Imad Abu Zarik, a former commander of a formation called Jaysh al Thawra (the Revolution Army) whose mission is to defend the border towns adjacent to the Jordanian border. The Russians ordered Zarik to remove all street portraits of Bashar Assad and his father at the Nasib border crossing point (facing Jordan) to prevent the pro-Iranian militias from establishing their presence there.
Cutthroat Economic Confrontation
The tension between Iran and Russia is not limited to the military deployment of each of its protégés and proxies. The real conflict resides in the ruthless race for the acquisition of post-civil war exclusive economic advantages derived from the reconstruction process that Syria supposedly will undergo in the near future.6
Yahya Rahim Safavi, military adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader and past commander of the Revolutionary Guards, said that Iran was striving to strengthen its economic relations with Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, parallel to their military and political cooperation.7 The “jewel in the crown” of the quadruple Shi’ite axis will be the construction of a railway from Iran through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean Sea. This enterprise will strengthen the economic ties between these countries and provide them with strategic depth. There is also a religious tourism aspect in the plan, with the “Shi’ite Train” bringing masses of Iranian pilgrims to the Shi’ite holy sites in Iraq and Syria.8
Hossein Selahvarzi, Vice-Chair of the Iranian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, declared in August 2017 Iran’s desire to advance projects for the development and rehabilitation of Syria using Iranian companies. Selahvarzi addressed the Syrian government to promote free trade agreements between the two countries to facilitate the process of Syria’s rehabilitation.9
Syrian Electricity minister, Mohammad Zuhair Kharboutli, who visited Tehran in September 2017, signed agreements to import five power plants from Iran to rehabilitate the power sector in Syria. On the agenda is the signing of additional contracts in excess of half a billion Euros.10
In a consortium with Venezuelan and Syrian companies, Iran announced its plans to build a refinery in Syria near Homs, with an initial production capacity of 70,000 barrels of oil per day.11 At the second stage, the production rate will increase to 140,000 barrels of oil a day. Iran also announced that it would rehabilitate two additional refineries in Syria. Iran’s intention is to make use of Syrian crude oil, which the Iranians would refine.12
In January 2019, Iran and Syria signed nine agreements for Syria’s railroad reconstruction, investment, financing and money laundering, education and culture and “combating terrorism.” To add insult to Russian injury, Iran was granted the exclusive rights of operating the Latakia port allowing for the first time a direct foothold of Iran on the Mediterranean, in close vicinity of Russia’s naval bases in Tartus and Latakia.
Moreover, Syria is supposed to lease to Iran 5,000 hectares of land for farming and to provide land for animal husbandry as well as another 1,000 hectares for constructing oil and gas terminals. [1 hectare = 2.5 acres.] These agreements come after another series of exclusive rights bestowed by the Syrian regime on Iran, such as investment in Syrian phosphates in the eastern part of Syria near the historical city of Palmyra where, according to Syrian statistics, the area has the world’s largest phosphate reserves.13
Russia expressed its anger over Syria’s granting of unprecedented economic advantages to Iran. Russia’s reaction was received in Damascus and, as a result, Moscow was also granted rights to invest and exploit phosphates. Moscow intervened again when the Syrian regime was about to grant a consortium backed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards the concession to operate mobile phone services alongside Syria’s Syriatel and MTN companies.
There is no doubt that of all the agreements signed by Syria and Iran, the agreement on the Latakia seaport carries with it dire consequences regionally. Should the agreement enter into effect, this would open the door for the Iranian alliance stretching from Iran-Iraq-Syria and the Mediterranean to secure a military and economic route that would exclusively serve Iranian interests.
Iran’s Social Activities
Tehran has had political ambitions concerning Syria for years and has indeed invested considerable resources in converting Syria into a Shiite state. The process began during the rule of Hafez Assad when a far-reaching network was created of educational, cultural, and religious institutions throughout Syria; it was further expanded during Bashar’s reign. The aim was to promote the Shiization of all regions of the Syrian state. The Syrian regime let Iranian missionaries work freely to strengthen the Shiite faith in Damascus and the cities of the Alawite coast, as well as the smaller towns and villages. A field study by the European Union in the first half of 2006 found that the most significant percentage of religious conversions to Shiism occurred in areas with an Alawite majority.14
In both urban and rural parts of Syria, Sunnis and others who adopted the Shiite faith received privileges and preferential treatment in the disbursement of Iranian aid money. The heads of the tribes in the Raqqa area were invited by the Iranian ambassador in Damascus to visit Iran cost-free, and the Iranians doled out funds to the poor and financial loans to merchants who were never required to pay them back.15
The dimensions of the Iranian investment in Raqqa, which included elegant public buildings, mosques, and husainiyyas (worshippers’ halls specially designed by the Shi’a Muslim creed to serve as a place for the celebration of ceremonies, a place of gathering and hearing sermons – either political or religious), were recently revealed by Sunni rebels who took over the remote town and destroyed, plundered, and removed all signs of the Iranian and Shiite presence there.16 As of 2009, there were over 500 husainiyyas in Syria undergoing Iranian renovation work. In Damascus itself, the Iranians invested substantial sums to control the Shiite holy places including the tomb of Sayyida Zaynab, the shrine of Sayyida Ruqayya, and the shrine of Sayyida Sukayna. These sites attract Iranian tourism, which grew from 27,000 visitors in 1978 to 200,000 in 2003.17
Iran also operates a cultural center in Damascus that it considers one of its most important and successful.18 This center publishes works in Arabic, holds biweekly cultural events, and conducts seminars and conferences aimed at enhancing the Iranian cultural influence in the country. The Iranian cultural center is also responsible for the propagation and study of the Persian language in Syrian universities, including providing teachers of Persian.
Syria’s ethnic diversity in the southern part of the country has been a challenge to Iran’s drive to penetrate the area and establish its presence and influence. To overcome this obstacle, Iran has financed the establishment of a so-called research institute headed by a local collaborator, a former rebel commander Hussam Fneichar, a man of dubious reputation. The institute’s primary purpose and goal are to collect information on the whereabouts of opposition elements in the area, their activities, and all relevant information to be used in time of need (such as phone numbers, addresses, family members, cousins, broader families, and social affiliations). All information gathered is duly coordinated with officers belonging to a formation called Al Quwwat Al Radifa (the Radifa Forces), part of the Fourth Armored Division, before being processed and implemented on the ground against the designated opposition members.
Most impressive, however, is the social activities initiated by Iran meant to widen its audience and followers in Syria by spreading the Shiite ideology. Iran has been active in establishing non-profit organizations to renovate and sometimes reconstruct husainiyyas, helping the poor and promoting Iran’s role among the revered Shi’a Sheikhs in the Daraa and Quneitra provinces.
A special envoy sent by Khamenei, the Iranian Supreme Leader, visited the town of Daraa at the beginning of 2019 and met with representatives of the regime and the population, discussing ways of assisting the population in the area. The envoy offered services either directly or through the different municipalities of the Daraa department, such as organizing religious classes for the children of Da’el and Al Harraq. The most influential non-profit organizations in the Daraa province are Al Zahraa and Al Bustan organizations, the latter having its main office in the village of Khan Arnabeh on the Syrian plateau facing Israel and intimately coordinated with the Golan regiment (Fawj el Jolane) and the Baath party militias. This activity is not limited to the southern region of Syria but encompasses the Syrian territory completely, as far east as the Deir el Zor region.
According to reports, Iran even initiated the establishment of a political party called the “People’s Party” (Hizb el Sha’ab) headed by ‘Abd el ‘Aziz Trad Al Milhem, known for his pro-Iranian affiliations. The party opened offices in the town of Quneitra and has enlisted 450 members.
Iran has established 38 NGOs and non-profit organizations all over the Syrian territory, which serve as a means to spread Iranian influence and hegemony in areas considered to be of vital interest to Iran. Those organizations are to be found in Aleppo, Homs, Damascus, Daraa, Deir el Zor, Latakia, Hama, and Quneitra and serve Iran’s policy of long-term presence in Syria. They are a substitute for the Syrian regime’s failing organs meant to support and provide services to the population in the fields of energy, health, and food supply. They participate through straw companies in the very lucrative market of reconstruction of Syria’s destroyed infrastructures. All these organizations are devoted to assisting the local Shiite population. Some of those organizations rely on local collaborators while others, such as the Al Zahraa NGO active in the small town of Al Yaduda, are linked directly to the personal envoy of Iran Supreme Guide Khamenei in Syria.
The examples relating to the activities of those charitable organizations are varied. The Lebanese Jihad Al Banna’ (Constructive Jihad) non-profit organization is an offshoot of Lebanon’s Hizbullah and was instrumental in rebuilding the educational facilities in a Shiite majority populated town of Nabbal in the Aleppo province. It also constructed new healthcare facilities in that town, while in Deir el Zor, the same organization provided food for the livestock at half the market price.
According to reliable sources, Iran’s “charitable” organizations are spread in Syria as follows:
Damascus area: Al-Lajna al-Khayriyyah Al Ijtima’iah (The Social Charitable Committee); Al-Zahraa’ Charitable Organization; Jihad Al Banna’ (Constructive Jihad); Mu’ssasst Al Amin Al Ijtima’iyah (The Amin Social Institution); Majma’ Al Sarat Al Thaqafi (The Prayer Educational Organization); Al Rahmat Al Khayriyah (Al Rahmat Charitable Organization); Mu’assassat al Imam Al Sajed (Imam Al Sajed Institution); Mu’assassat Al Shuhada’ (The Martyrs’ Association).
Deir El Zor: Al Thaklin Al Khayriyyah (Al Thaklin Charitable Organization); Jihad Al Banna’(Constructive Jihad).
Latakia: Al Thaklin Al Khayriyyah (Al Thaklin Charitable Organization).
Hama: Al Thaklin Al Khayriyyah (Al Thaklin Charitable Organization).
Aleppo: Al Thaklin Al Khayriyyah (Al Thaklin Charitable Organization); Mu’assassat Al Shuhada’ (The Martyrs’ Association); Jihad Al Banna’(Constructive Jihad); Markaz Nour El Hada al Thaqafi (Nour El Hada Educational Center); Utlub El ‘Ilm (Ask for Knowledge); Ihsan El Khayriyah (Ihsan Charitable); Majma’ al Hijja (Al Hijja Association); M’ahad Al Qalam Al T’alimi (Al Qalam Educational Institute).
Homs: Al Ghadir; Al Mostafa Al Khayriyah (Al Mostafa Charitable); Idara Al Markaziyah Fi Homs (The Central Management in Homs); Mu’assassat Al Shuhada’ (The Martyrs’ Association); Jam’iyat Al Hadi Al Khayriyah (Al Hadi Charitable Organization); Jam’iyat Al Zarzuriyah (Al Zarzuriya Association); Al Thaklin Al Khayriyyah (Al Thaklin Charitable Organization).
The most troubling Iranian/Hizbullah activity in Syria as a whole, and in the Golan area facing Israel and Jordan, in particular, is the ethnic cleansing Iran is initiating with the active assistance of Hizbullah Lebanon. As reported earlier in this article, Hizbullah destroyed at least eight Syrian villages to build its Ayb Base. In a different twist, in the area called “the Death Triangle” (Muthallath Al Mawt) a small village named Karyat Deir Makr, west of Damascus, has become the leading site where Hizbullah’s families dwell after having expelled the local inhabitants and taken possession of their houses, buildings, and apartments. Moreover, according to sources, Hizbullah has embarked on a buying spree of agricultural land and real estate near the Jordanian-Syrian border using “straw men,” destined to be used by Hizbullah militias for future dwelling purposes. Hizbullah has been cooperating in that particular field with a local collaborator named “Abu Qasem,” a member of the Ja’afar family in the Suweyda area.
This phenomenon is not limited to southern Syrian. The Syrian regime itself has been cooperating directly with the Iranian policy of ethnic cleansing by implementing a harsh policy of vetting Syrian refugees who have applied to return to their original homes. The process is so complicated and has been the subject of a confrontation with the Russian Authorities, which had brokered an arrangement allowing the return of Syrian refugees to their homes. Hizbullah opposition was such that as a result, very few thousand Syrian refugees (out of more than a million and a half refugees in Lebanon) have been able to return to Syria. Sunni residents of conquered towns, which were the scene of bloody battles between the regime and the rebels who had left the town and lived as displaced refugees, such as the inhabitants of the town of Al-Qusayr, have been forbidden to return to their destroyed homes. Those displaced people living in the Homs area and north of Damascus have been barred from returning to Al-Qusayr and offered to live in other towns such as Homs. More than 60 percent of the urban area in Al-Qusayr has been destroyed during the battles and what was left was given to members of the regime’s notorious militia (“Al-Shabiha”). Hizbullah has been selling all agricultural land belonging to Al Qusayr and, according to some sources, Hizbullah has cut down all the trees in the town and its area and sold them as timber for heating. Lately, Hizbullah has been building new fortifications around the city, mainly on the Al Dab’aa military airbase. However, Christian families whose members were part of the “Shabiha” militia in the area and fought with the Hizbullah units against the rebels were allowed to return to Al Qusayr.
This fate has not been exclusively the fortune of the inhabitants of Al Qusayr. Dozens of Sunni families were forbidden by Hizbullah to return to the town of Maaloula in the Qalamoun area bordering Lebanon, which fell to Hizbullah in the summer of 2014, under the pretext they had cooperated with Jabhat al Nusra jihadist organization. Hizbullah even razed to the ground dozens of houses by setting them on fire, including some of the mosques, while forbidding holding prayers in and around them. Hizbullah established military garrisons in and around Maaloula. The remaining empty houses were distributed among the Hizbullah fighters’ families present in the area. As in the case of Al Qusayr, here again, Christians were allowed to return to the ghost towns and conduct their religious ceremonies. Hizbullah offered an alternative to the Sunni inhabitants of Maaloula – enlist in Hizbullah ranks or lose their property to the benefit of Hizbullah fighters.
Despite all Israeli efforts to contain, prevent, and dislodge Iranian proxies and Iranian troops from building a front facing Israel in the Golan, Iran and its proxies with Hizbullah leadership have succeeded in infiltrating the area and creating a fait accompli Israel cannot ignore. The Iranian proxies should be posted at least 80 kilometers from the Israeli border, but they are present at the very doorsteps of the Golan, still undercover and in modest formations. Should Iran continue with no intervention from Russia and Israel, then the process of consolidation would become faster, and the threat to Israel would be much more acute.
Moreover, a very unusual scenario is unfolding in Syria, and that is complete submission to Iranian efforts to “Iranize” Syria utilizing military presence, economic influence, and social and religious activities. The fact that more than five million refugees have not been granted the right to return to their homes is because the ultimate goal is to recreate Syria. The goal is to reshape the state where the Alawites, a minority once representing 15 percent of the population, have grown in percentage and consolidated their chokehold on Syria, changing the political and demographic reality of what used to be Syria.
Amputated from its northwestern province of Idlib by Turkey, a province which is undergoing a process of “Turkification” and deprived from its northeastern region by the U.S.- protected Kurds, Bashar Assad has no other choice but to rely solely on his allies and saviors, Russia and Iran, both of which demand to satisfy their political appetite in return. Bashar Assad’s unstable and shaky regime has no choice but to rely on the Iranian and Russian bayonets. The price Assad has to pay is obvious and is accepted because it carries with it an unprecedented rewarding policy – by relinquishing elements of Syria’s independence he receives in return full recognition and legitimization of the Alawite regime.
This is a fundamental change in the Middle East ethnic fiber fashioned by the Iranian Ayatollah regime: the consolidation of a Shiite belt extending from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen with potential ramifications in eastern Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
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2 For further details, see, Dr. Shimon Shapira, “Iran’s Plans to Take Over Syria,” Jerusalem Issue Brief, vol. 13, no. 10, May 5, 2013, https://jcpa.org/article/irans-plans-to-take-over-syria/.
4 See Dr. Shimon Shapira, “Iran Launches ‘Hizbullah Syria’ to Open a New Front Against Israel on the Golan Heights,” vol. 14, no. 16, June 2, 2014, https://jcpa.org/article/iran-hizbullah-syria-front/.
5 See Dr. Shimon Shapira, “Iran Steps Up Its Economic Domination in Syria,” October 19, 2017, https://jcpa.org/iran-steps-economic-domination-syria/.
6 Op. cit. Dr. Shimon Shapira, “Iran’s Plan to Take Over Syria.”
7 Op. cit. Dr. Shimon Shapira, “Iran Steps Up Its Economic Domination in Syria.”
8 Iran’s Young Journalists Club (yjc.ir), October 4, 2017, cited by Shapira, op. cit.
9 Fars, August 19, 2017, cited by Shapira, op. cit.
10 Reuters, September 12, 2017; Daily Star, September 12, 2017, cited by Shapira, op. cit
11 https://financialtribune.com/articles/energy/73170/iran-to-play-leading-role-in-syria-refinery-project, cited by Shapira, op. cit.
12 Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), September 26, 2017, cited by Shapira, op. cit.
14 https://www.hudson.org/research/9894-the-shiite-turn-in-syria-, cited by Shapira, “Iran’s Plans,” op. cit.
16 Martin Kramer, “The Shiite Crescent Eclipsed,” April 16, 2013, http://www.martinkramer.org/sandbox/2013/04/the-shiite-crescent-is-broken.