By Ahmad Salloum
July 15, 2020
Iran is seeking to penetrate the Syrian cultural sphere, appealing to the dispossessed poor in areas of key strategic importance. Through a smattering of small-scale building projects, educational programs, Persian language-teaching, gifts and aid provision, the Islamic Republic aims to forge a sectarian Shiite identity among younger Syrians – in the hope of gaining a long-term strategic foothold in the country.
Tehran’s military and security apparatus has been working to increase its sectarian presence in Syria by establishing Shiite bases in the areas it controls jointly with the al-Assad regime. This aims to incubate against external pressures, especially those coming from Russia, which is trying to weaken Iran’s influence within Syria, several sources have told IranWire.
Nawar Shaaban, an expert in military and security affairs at the Imran Center for Studies, told IranWire that since entering Syria Iran has taken a keen interest in the country’s domestic military and security system. But over the years of fighting its both military power and the need to use force have diminished. Iran has therefore found itself at a crossroads: to either continue down the military line, or enter other sectors in Syria.
For this reason, Iran has taken to penetrating younger elements of Syrian society such as the Mahdi Scouts, who are spread around Deir Al-Zour, Nubul, and Al-Zahra and other groups. It has also been reinforcing the role of its charitable organizations, such as the Great Messenger Organization, the Two Weighty Things Organization, and Jihad for Construction.
Shaaban explained that Iran is targeting projects in terms of quantity rather than quality. It has therefore intensified its service projects in poorer districts and areas that are badly administrated, aiming to gain widespread popularity. Poverty and and infrastructural weakness in Deir Al-Zour can be seized on by Iran to advance its own interests: small buildings such as kitchens and clinics are erected, with people informed that these projects have been provided by Iran, to reassure them that they will not be abandoned in the post-ISIS period.
This comes as the same time as Iran zeroes in on the Syrian culture sector, sponsoring plays and language courses, in order to gain the loyalty and love of the Shiite populace. Iran is targeting people who are tired of war and feel neglected by the regime, providing them with things that the Syrian regime does not.
The Bright Light Institute: A New Chapter for Iranian Militias
Iran recently began the construction of a new building named the Bright Light Institute in the villa area of Deir Al-Zour governorate. Located near the Iranian Cultural Center, the center will employ Iranian educational staff to teach Persian to Syrian children.
In order to attract students to the institute, Iran has allocated SYP 20,000 per month to each student who commits to studies there, taking advantage of the difficult living conditions experienced by the people of the governorate. The institute will receive children from six to 15 years of age.
Umar Al-Ahmad, an IranWire correspondent in Syria, said: “In addition to the monthly salary, Iranians have allocated significant financial remuneration for students who excel in their studies.”
He also points out that it will be supervised by the Director of the Iranian Cultural Center, who is known as Al-Haj Sadiq. The site is expected to open at the beginning of July and Iran already plans to establish similar institutions in the cities of Muhassan, Al-Mayadeen, and Albukamal.
Al-Ahmad adds that one of the institute’s most important tasks will be to bring large numbers of parents and children under the supervision of the Iranian Cultural Center. In effect, he says, it is a new gateway for Iranian militias to penetrate the Syrian civilian and family sphere.
Ahmad Al-Ramadan, Director of the Euphrates Post website, told IranWire that the Shining Light Institute’s objective is to spread Shiite thought among young people and children who it considers ideologically or morally deficit.
Ramadan adds that since Iran took control of Deir Al-Zour, it has participated in every artistic and cultural event there, with officials from the Cultural Center attending public events on the orders of Al-Haj Sadiq. Sadiq himself attends all events and presents gifts to school students to tempt them to join the Shining Light Institute.
Iran has also established Persian language-teaching institutes with the aim of bringing children and young people closer to Iranian and Afghan officials, and to facilitate communication with them. This comes in addition to its intention to distribute Persian-language magazines to deliver its messages to the residents of Deir Al-Zour Governorate.
“Iran is seeking to establish a generation to fight in its ranks following the completion of their studies and their ideological preparation according to the tenets of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei,” says Ramadan. He says that the Al-Mahdi Scouts in Deir Al-Zour are a Syrian outfit being run by Rashid Al-Faysal and funded by the Iranian Cultural Center: in essence, a form of boarding school where children are taught to fight and show loyalty to Iran and the Lebanese resistance.
The Washington Post has previously published a report on school textbooks in Iran and their support of sectarianism. These books, the newspaper noted, are sharply nationalist and preoccupied with portraying an Iranian identity that is intrinsically linked to being Shiite.
Gifts and Toys With Sectarian Hues
Deir Al-Zour governorate also saw the opening of an Iranian cultural center in the city of Albukamal at the beginning of March, which was attended by Al-Haj Sadiq.
In a speech he gave at the time, Sadiq stressed the future importance of the center and detailed some of the planned courses and academic scholarships the Iran-backed initiative will offer to the people of Deir al-Zour and the surrounding countryside.
From time to time, Umar al-Ahmad confirms, local Iranian agents come to distribute gifts and toys to children in the area. Most recently, gifts were distributed to children bearing the words “Hussein’s Sacrifice” at the opening of the cultural center in the presence of Al-Haj Salman, Iran’s main representative in Deir Al-Zour.
According to Al-Ahmad, Iranian militias also distributed food baskets to civilians at the beginning of July in the city of Mayadeen in an attempt to win the people’s support.
What are Iran’s Long-Term Goals in Syria?
After Iran’s military intervention helped the embattled Syrian president Bashar al-Assad re-establish control over many regions, Iran has moved to consolidate its long-term influence in the country through gestures of goodwill and acquiring new Shiite converts.
The Wall Street Journal has suggested in a previous report that Iran is trying to spread Shiite ideology among Sunni Syrians through humanitarian aid. “Iran is investing its military and economic strength to turn it into a permanent foothold,” the American newspaper surmised.
Ahmad Al-Ramadan of the Euphrates Post told IranWire: “After gaining a foothold in Deir Al-Zour, Iran has managed to win the support of the people by treating them well, providing financial and food aid and employing the region’s young men in its militias. It has now begun targeting children and teenagers in order to groom them in accordance with Iran’s sectarian beliefs.”
Why does Iran want Deir Al-Zour’s residents to become Shiites? The weight of the US economic blockade on Iran is increasing day by day and as such, Iran is casting about for find allies that will reinforce its hegemony, and at the same time, could be used as a weapon against US interests in the region. For this reason attempting to spread Shiism in Syria is a tactical move, not an evangelical gesture.
Ahmad Al-Ramadan further explained that Tehran sees Deir Al-Zour as the main crossing point between Iraq and Syria, as it is located on the corridor linking Iran to the Mediterranean coast. The region is also gaining strategic importance for Iran as it connects the Syrian capital, Damascus – the stronghold of the al-Assad regime – and Lebanon, the seat of Hezbollah.
Deir Al-Zour governorate is also a border region that links Iraq and the Syrian desert towards the Jordanian border. It sits on the road that connects Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon via regulated crossings, such as the Qaim-Albukamal crossing, as well as unregulated crossings in the Akashat desert and Al-Anbar. It is also a region in which US forces are located, east of the Euphrates.
According to Ramadan, the region constitutes a human reservoir feeding Iranian militias. Thousands have joined the ranks of the Revolutionary Guards here. In addition, the region has several oil wells, a source of financial support for Iranian officers in Syria.