By Yasser Allawi and Ahmed Abdullah
August 25, 2021
The Iranian regime has been openly supportive of Bashar al-Assad’s despotic regime in Syria ever since the outset of the Syrian uprisings in 2011. It has dispatched militants to the battlefield in untold numbers, stood by Al-Assad in global propaganda drives and set up cultural organizations in a bid to influence public opinion inside Syria.
Nevertheless, the regime has always denied trying to affect the course of political events in the country. A new investigation by IranWire’s Arabic team has revealed Iranian officials and their proxies worked to manufacture popular support for Bashar al-Assad’s 2021 rigged election campaign, in direct contravention of Syrian domestic law.
For the past two years in particular, the Islamic Republic of Iran and its proxies in Syria have worked overtime to promote the notion that its presence in the country is purely to support the Syrian army. Iranian military and political figures have long cited “Syrian territorial sovereignty” as an excuse for the incursions, also claiming that Iran’s combat role in Syria is a limited one.
On July 23 this year, for instance, Iran’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Majid Takht Ravanchi, called on the UN Security Council to safeguard the “sovereignty, independence, unity, and territorial integrity of Syria” and to reject “illegal separatist moves” against the Al-Assad regime. Earlier Major General Ali Jafari, a commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Force, issued a statement that asserted: “The role of IRGC members present in Syria is restricted to providing consultations and sharing expertise.”
In an interview with the Russian news agency Sputnik aired in August 2020, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad had flat-out denied that any Iranian forces were even present in the country. “There are no Iranian forces here,” he said. “This is very clear. They support Syria, they send military experts who work with our forces on the ground, they are with the Syrian army.”
An investigation by IranWire has found that not only was this not true, but Iranian military groups in Syria, as well as Iran-backed Shia militias and community associations, intervened in the 2021 Syrian presidential “election” by promoting Bashar al-Assad throughout the campaign season. Syrian electoral law prohibits candidates from enlisting the support of foreign entities.
Iranian Officials in the Big Tent Promoting Al-Assad
Over the course of two weeks, in cooperation with local residents and Syrians working for IRGC-affiliated militias in Deir ez-Zor district, eastern Syria, IranWire Arabic examined pre-election campaign material and on-the-ground activities in the run-up to the May 2020 vote.
The Islamic Republic supported the construction and preparation of stalls and tents that popped up in various parts of Deir ez-Zor promoting Bashar Al-Assad, most notably in the major cities of Deir ez-Zor, Al-Mayadin, and Al-Bukamal. This work was supervised by Revolutionary Guards-affiliated militias – both those comprised of foreigners, such as the Fatemiyoun and Zainabiyoun Brigades, Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi militias, and local groups such as the Shia Baqir Brigade and the 47th Brigade.
Iranian commanders, militia members, and Iran-backed cultural associations run by Syrians were photographed and filmed helping to set up the stands. They also hosted public events attended by IRGC commanders, and printed posters in support of Al-Assad ahead of his win. In July Al-Assad was sworn in for another seven years, officially on 95 percent of the vote.
Two Iranian Commanders Involved in Election Campaigning
Two high-ranking figures from the Islamic Republic, one with a military background and the other seemingly a culture tsar, played a key role in promoting Al-Assad this spring. Hajj Abu Hadi, the Islamic Republic’s main man in eastern Syria, is an IRGC commander stationed in Deir ez-Zor. He was spotted at pro-Bashar al-Assad stalls scattered around Deir ez-Zor city several times ahead of the vote. We managed to capture him on camera during one of his many appearances as a semi-permanent guest on a stall run by the second official, Hajj Jawad.
Hajj Abi Hadi and Hajj Jawad are pictured at a pre-election gathering in Deir ez-Zoor. A speaker on the tannoy says: “His eminence Hassan Nasrallah [leader of Hezbollah]… Greetings to Hajj Jawad… Greetings to Hajj Hadi… Greetings to Hezbollah.”
Hajj Jawad, also known as Sayyid Jawad, is best known locally as an Iranian functionary overseeing social and cultural activities in Deir ez-Zor. In the video, he was seen sitting next to Hajj Abu Hadi, a picture of Bashar al-Assad between them. For safety reasons the camera operator did not get closer to the pair, but four independent sources confirmed their identities. Their two cars, both of the same four-wheel drive model, were also filmed parked nearby.
The two Toyota cars spotted at the party, which locals identified as belonging to Hajj Hadi and Hajj Jawad.
The Islamic Republic relies on a nexus of individuals with influence in different fields to realize its strategic goals in the Middle East and North Africa. Their true identities are generally kept a secret and they operate under pseudonyms. Multiple sources in Deir ez-Zor told IranWire these people are promoted through local religious, military, and societal propaganda.
Our team contacted a high-ranking Syrian militia member in Deir ez-Zor to find out what else was known about the two men. Hajj Ali Al-Hadi Abu Zainab (or Abu Al-Hadi), they were told, is around 40 years old, wears glasses, is approximately 180 cm tall, and resides in the Hatlah district. He uses various cars including a Land Cruiser, a GMC, and a white Toyota Hilux – the latter of which can clearly be seen in the video.
But Hajj Jawad – whom the source named as Hajj Jawad Al-Ghafari – was said to be responsible not merely for cultural activities but for directing the local Fatemiyoun Brigade. The source described Hajj Jawad as being around 35 years of age, and said he had also armed local Syrian militia groups affiliated with the IRGC. He, too, apparently drives a white Toyota Hilux.
A volunteer in the Syrian pro-government National Defense Forces told IranWire that Hajj Javad also helps distribute food and financial aid to Iran-backed militia groups. Other militia members described him as a crucial link between the general IRGC command and the groups, organizations, and influential tribal figures loyal to Iran and the Syrian regime in Deir ez-Zor. While officially running social projects, Hajj Jawad was said to be one of the Iranians in most constant contact with regime officials and military commanders in eastern Syria.
So prominent was Hajj Jawad’s stall in Deir ez-Zor in the run-up to the rigged election that local families named it after him. Five separate individuals, all of whom were assigned to set up stands in support of Bashar al-Assad, told IranWire that Hajj Jawad’s campaigning outpost had been set up 15 days before the vote and bedecked with pictures and banners celebrating the incumbent.
Hajj Jawad also made sporadic visits to other events supporting Al-Assad in and around Deir ez-Zor – not just to soak up the atmosphere, but to inspect the sites and provide them with appropriate support. He co-opted the Iranian Cultural Center in Deir ez-Zor into the campaign by hanging a large photograph of Al-Assad over its main entrance, together with a message in support of his candidacy.
The Iran-Backed Syrians Who Interfered in Elections
IranWire’s enquiries also shed light on five Syrian figures with strong ties to Iran who tried to amass public support for the dictator ahead of the vote. They, of course, have the right to campaign on behalf of their preferred candidate as holders of Syrian citizenship. But their being in receipt of funding and/or political and military support in Iran makes these activities highly dubious.
1. Muhammad Amin al-Raja, MP
Serving member of parliament Muhammad Amin al-Raja hails from the town of Hatla in the Deir ez-Zor countryside. His family famously converted to Shiism more than thirty years ago, becoming close to the Iranian regime as a result. Today he is a key link for Tehran in Syria, receiving direct support from its representatives in the country in a relationship the regime has been keen to promote.
According to an official website of Ayatollah Khamenei, on March 7, 2017, Al-Raja met the Iranian Supreme Leader’s representative in Syria, Abolfazl Tabatabaei-Ashkazari. The following February he was warmly received by Iran-backed militia the Al-Nujaba Movement, as seen in a picture published by the US-designated group before Facebook blocked its page.
Another photo showed Muhammad Amin al-Raja meeting with the Iranian ambassador to Syria. Ain al-Madina newspaper, which focuses its reportage on affairs in Syria’s eastern region, has described the MP as “Iran’s first agent in Deir ez-Zor.”
Ain al-Madina’s editor-in-chief, Ziyad Awad, told IranWire: “Al-Raja works with Iran, making use of the legacy of his father, the cleric Hussein Al-Raja, who converted to Shiism during the eighties. Hussein Al-Raja is considered to have been one of the most influential promoters of the sect, having received support from Iran in Deir ez-Zor for decades prior to his departure in April.”
In a phone interview, Awad, a researcher of wartime and post-conflict Syria, added that Al-Raja has taken on several different political roles in his time as an MP in the People’s Assembly. As heir to one of the most prominent Shiites in the area, he has also become a quasi-leader for the Shiites of Deir ez-Zor, especially in his hometown of Hatla. He is also said to hand out periodic financial and in-kind aid to members of this religious minority, all bankrolled by Iran.
In a video clip recently posted online by his son Murtada, Al-Raja is seen hosting a street party in the Sayyida Zeinab area of the Damascus countryside, playing songs in praise of Bashar al-Assad. The walls are plastered with posters that declare: “The people of Hatlah and Deir ez-Zor governorate present in Sayyida Zeinab pledge their eternal allegiance to President Bashar Al-Assad; Presented by Syrian People’s Assembly MP Muhammad Amin Al-Raja.”
2. Nawaf al-Bashir, Tribal Leader
Nawaf al-Bashir is a sheikh from Syria’s Bakara tribe and a prominent leader of a tribal army directly supported by the IRGC. In late 2019, he was photographed at a meeting of Syrian tribal sheikhs and Ali Akbar Velayati: Ali Khamenei’s personal advisor on international affairs.
Nawaf Al-Bashir produced and printed his own election banners in support of Al-Assad, which his family put up in Deir ez-Zor’s main thoroughfares in a bid to confirm their loyalty to the incumbent. He was also photographed attending stalls promoting Al-Assad ahead of the election.
It was not always so. Back in 2011, shortly after the Syrian uprising began and before the country was plunged into all-out civil war, Al-Bashir declared his opposition to Al-Assad. But in 2017 he safely returned to Damascus – with Iranian guarantees – and apologized to the regime, claiming that his support for the Syrian revolutionaries had been a “miscalculation.” Ever since then, he has been working to recruit fighters from his tribe to join the Baqir Brigade: a local Shia unit fighting alongside Iranian militias.
3. Madloul al-Aziz, Al Qaeda Supporter-Turned-Militia Founder
Madloul al-Aziz, also known as Abu Dhabbah, is another serving MP who belongs to the Al-Obaidat clan of the Al-Bakara tribe. Local sources as well as a non-profit organization, Pro-Justice, state that he was a member of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra group from 2012 to 2015. After ISIS entered Deir ez-Zor, he is understood to have fled to Damascus and reconciled with Air Force Intelligence there, going on to establish a militia made up of his clan members on its behalf. Pro-Justice notes that Madlool Al-Aziz was supported by IRGC commanders in Deir ez-Zor when he ran for election.
Today, Al-Aziz’s militia consists of around 100 fighters who receive orders and support from an Iranian security complex in the city of Deir ez-Zor. He, in turn, has been tasked with buying land and real estate for the Iranians in the villages of Marat and Mazloum. Separately he is known to be active in the Qaterji Group, a major regime-supporting business and smuggling outfit in Deir ez-Zor, and has been accused by activists and local journalists of leading an Iran-backed militia operation in the villages of Marat and Mazloum.
Al-Aziz supported Al-Assad’s election campaign along with other tribe members and paid several visits to the Al-Baqir Brigade’s official stand, which also threw its weight behind Al-Assad. He was photographed at other pro-Al-Assad stalls and sponsored banners for Al-Assad around the city.
4. Muayad al-Duwayhi, Zainabiyoun Brigade Founder
Muayad al-Duwayhi, now nicknamed “Javad Abu Nizar,” returned to the city of Al-Mayadin after the Syrian government took control of Deir ez-Zor, thanks mostly to influential relatives in the government who mediated on his behalf. He founded the Zainabiyoun Brigade, also known as the Zainab Regiment and directly affiliated with the IRGC, in 2018.
According to Al-Nahar newspaper, Al-Duwayhi became the first Syrian to receive the title “Salman”, which is normally granted exclusively to Iranian, Afghan, and Pakistani military commanders. He then also became the first Syrian local leader to take up office inside the security square of Al-Mayadin, controlled by Iranian militias.
A photo published on social media, which has been verified by IranWire, shows Al-Duwayhi beneath a banner in support of Al-Assad’s recent election campaign in Al-Mayadin. The text reiterated his loyalty to the regime and mentioned the Zainab Regiment, alongside his new name, “Javad Abu Nizar”. The website Iran Insider also reports that Hajj Hadi recommended Al-Duwayhi be granted Iranian citizenship in appreciation for his work strengthening Iran’s presence and role in Deir ez-Zor.
5. Khaled Hassan al-Marai, Militia Commander
Khaled Hassan al-Marai is a member of the Bakara tribe, which is spread across Aleppo, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. He founded the Al-Baqir Brigade with the support of the IRGC and took part in battles against the opposition Free Syrian Army in Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor. He was also previously pictured with Ghasem Soleimani, the former commander of the IRGC’s expeditionary Quds Force, who was killed in a US drone strike on Baghdad Airport last January.
In early 2021, Al-Marai was “honored” by a content producer calling itself the Mahad Media Foundation, which thanked him for “the sacrifices he and the Bakara tribe have made to liberate the city of Aleppo from the aggressors and their determination to keep up their resistance no matter the challenges”. The Mahad Media Foundation describes itself as a Syrian production company, but its Facebook page clearly indicates affiliation with state entities in Iran. It organizes trips to Tehran for Syrian trainees in cooperation with a group called the Foundation for Media and Arts, which Mahad’s own director, Fathi Nizam, has confirmed is an Iranian institution.
On May 20 this year Al-Marai was photographed at an election stand in the village of Tel Maksour, accompanied by Adnan Al-Sayd, a commander of the pro-regime Jerusalem Brigade.
Iranian Organization Calls for Al-Assad’s Re-election
Alongside these militia groups and figures backed by Tehran, Iran-affiliated cultural groups promoted Al-Assad throughout his election campaign. In Deir ez-Zor, a group known as the Friends Committee sponsored banners calling for the re-election of Bashar al-Assad.
The Iranian “Friends Committee” sponsored an electoral campaign banner in Deir ez-Zor.
The Friends Committee, also known as the People’s Committee for Syrian-Iranian Friendship, is an Iranian state-aligned institution hosting events and activities often attended by Iranian officials, including Tehran’s ambassador in Syria. It also hosted an event in February to mark the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, attended by senior pro-regime military figures and the governor of Deir ez-Zour. Many of the speeches were given over to lengthy descriptions of Iran’s military and nuclear capabilities, and the prospects for future Syria-Islamic Republic cooperation.
Iran’s Support Breaks Electoral Law
These activities by both Iranian leaders and Iran-sponsored political and military figures in Syria are in direct contravention of Syrian law, which prohibits both direct and indirect foreign involvement in electoral campaigns. Like most other countries around the world, the interference of outsiders in a democratic process – no matter how much of a sham it is – is considered a crime.
Article 54 of the 2014 Syrian General Election Law states: “It shall be prohibited for candidates or political parties to finance electoral campaign activity with any amount of cash, in-kind assistance, gifts, donations, or assistance from any external or foreign source, directly or indirectly.
Bashar Al-Assad has ruled Syria with an iron fist since the year 2000, when he succeeded his father, Hafez Al-Assad, who ran the country for 40 years. His electoral win was engineered from the off through the mass disqualification of all but the thinnest of cover competitors. The UN Security Council’s Resolution 2254 (2015) had stipulated new elections take place in a safe and neutral environment, after the formation of a new constitution and in the presence of UN observers. None of these conditions were met.
The US, UK, Germany, and Italy issued a joint statement declaring the presidential election in Syria “unfair”. No internally displaced persons, refugees or Syrians in the diaspora were able to vote. In the meantime, Iran-backed entities were scrambling on the ground to give the charade the illusion of popular support.