By Track Persia
June 28, 2021
Unlike the current Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, his predecessor Hafez al-Assad who was the first to recognise the Iranian Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979, did not let the Iranian regime fully implement its expansionist policy in Syria.
After became desperate and concerned about the civil war in his country that started a decade ago, Syria’s current dictator Bashar al-Assad gave the Iranian regime the chance to enter Syria to defend his regime against the rebels and that has eventually let the Iranians implement their expansionist policy in Syria.
In the beginning, Tehran supported the Syrian regime in its fight against rebels using its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, and later it enrolled Shiite fighters from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan to aid the cause. Tehran also enrolled local Syrian fighters in militias ostensibly to guard Shiite shrines, and it intensified relations with the higher ranks of the Syrian military apparatus, particularly the 4th Division headed by one of Hafez al-Assad’s other sons, Maher al-Assad.
When controlling the outskirts of Damascus and the strategic towns bordering Lebanon after a decade of fighting, Iran’s proxy militias managed to be present in large numbers in southern Syria near Israel. This new development is reflected in building multiple bases in Aleppo. Iran’s militia proxies in Syria have also set up a military camp in the Syrian towns and villages bordering Iraq. border.
Demographic and cultural changes
However, Tehran does not only depend on militias to secure influence in the regional counties, which it has great influence such as Syria. As the military conflict subsided in the last few years, Tehran has expanded its cultural influence in Syria to encourage Sunni Muslims there to convert to Shiism, or at the very least soften their attitudes toward their sectarian rivals.
Tehran’s efforts in spreading Shiism in Syria has paid off as this is reflected in the increasing number of recent converts inside Syrian regime-controlled areas prompted by living hardship and Iran’s incentive offers.
Recent reports indicate that Tehran has been involved in handing out cash and offering indoctrinated education and scholarships to the children of the impoverished Syrians at Iranian universities. Moreover, Tehran is offering free health care, food and trips to tourist spots in the regional countries it has influence to encourage conversion to Shiism.
As the case in Iraq, the Iranian regime has restored several Shiite holy shrines, in addition to building new shrines of revered Shiite figures in Syria which has a predominately Sunni population, while its Shia constitute a very small population before the Syrian civil war.
Aided by the Syrian totalitarian regime, Iran’s proxy militias have purchased and confiscated homes of displaced Syrians or those who migrated fearing for their lives during the civil war. Some of these militants, in particular from Iraq and Lebanon, have brought their families to Syria to live in properties confiscated by these militants.
The demographic and cultural changes directed by Tehran is aimed at increasing the number of Shia in Syria to received political power because the more Shia in the country the significant influence it will have. This will pay off when a final political solution is reached for the Syrian crisis as Iran could ask that the Shiite proxies be given significant positions in the Syrian government institutions and security forces.
It seems that the Iranian regime intends to exert influence in Syria through building a deep state in the country and not only through a submissive dictator in the country. This indicates that the Iranian regime is concerned about a possibility that al-Assad’s loyalty might wave if he makes deals with Russia and the United Arab which both have been trying to bring him into the Arab alliance and away from Iran.
Furthermore, in Syria, the Iranian regime has replicated the Hezbollah model it has applied in Iraq and Lebanon in order Hezbollah becomes the dominant power within this country. After the Syrian army had severely degraded in fighting rebels during the Syrian civil war, Iran enabled the Syrian army to reverse key setbacks and regain the upper hand in this war leaving the Assad regime beholden to Iran.
To defend the Assad regime, Iran also ordered Hezbollah to recruit thousands of Shia mercenary fighters from the Middle East and Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight in Syria. These fighters are now forming the core of pro-Assad forces in the country.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) – Quds Force under its late commander Qassem Soleimani who was killed in a US drone strike in Baghdad in January 2020 emerged as the primary overseer of the Syrian war effort, coordinating activities among the various Shiite mercenary forces and ensuring that their activities fulfil the Iranian foreign policy objectives. As the Assad regime weakened, it has become increasingly reliant on the local and foreign Shiite militias sponsored by Iran to seize and hold territory.
Cash for blood
The Iranian regime’s strategy in Syria depends on recruiting Shiite militants to fight in Syria. Beyond cash and benefits, Tehran relies heavily on religious and ideological appeals to find recruits willing to be killed for the Shiite cause. Tehran has sought to frame the fighting in Syria as an urgent necessity to defend Shia shrines.
The Iranian theocratic regime has also sought to frame the fighting in Syria as an urgent necessity to defend Shiite shrines in Syria such as the golden-domed Sayyeda Zainab shrine which is strategically located in south Damascus. The shrine is the central narrative of the propagandistic songs used by Iran’s proxy fighters in Syria and the feature of their slogans of martyrdom posters of fallen fighters.
Tehran offers monthly salaries on a sliding scale dependent on country of origin, basic and advanced military training. It also offers to pay the families of those killed militants and their children free education and annual pilgrimages to holy sites in Iran, Iraq, and Syria.