Former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad’s Baath Party regime was the first to recognize, and offer legitimacy to, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution in Iran. But Assad was careful to never let Iran expand its influence in Syria as it later did in Lebanon through Hezbollah.
The desperation of his son and successor Bashar al-Assad has given Iran’s expansionists their chance. Iranian forces entered Syria soon after its civil war started a decade ago to help defend the younger Assad’s regime against rebels. Tehran supported the Syrian regime in the war, along with its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, and even enrolled Shiite fighters from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan to aid the cause. Over time, Iran recruited local Syrian fighters in militias ostensibly to guard Shiite shrines, and it intensified relations with the higher echelons of the Syrian military apparatus, particularly the 4th Division headed by one of Hafez al-Assad’s other sons, Maher al-Assad.
A decade into the conflict, Iran-backed militias control the outskirts of Damascus and patrol the strategic towns on the Syria-Lebanon border. They are present in large numbers in southern Syria near Israel, have multiple bases in Aleppo, and since the Islamic State’s defeat in 2018 have also set up camp in towns and villages on the Syria-Iraq border.
But it’s not only through arms that Iran has secured its arc of influence from Tehran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. Over the last few years, as the military conflict has subsided, Iran has expanded its cultural influence in the war-torn nation to encourage Sunnis to convert to Shiism or at the very least soften their attitudes toward their sectarian rivals. Foreign Policy spoke to recent converts and their friends inside regime-held Syria who said that the economic collapse in Syria made it hard to ignore the perks Iran offered.
Iran is handing out cash to needy Syrians, a heavy dose of indoctrination in religious seminaries, scholarships to children to study in Iranian universities, free health care, food baskets, and trips to tourist spots to encourage conversion. Such small measures are not cost-intensive but could go a long way in influencing the view of Iran among impoverished Syrians.
It has restored old shrines and built new ones of revered Shiite figures, almost as if trying to rewrite the religious history of Syria, which is majority-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 benign power to cultivate long-term support among Sunni Syrians, with the final objective of retaining its sphere of influence and exercising control through proxies, as in Lebanon and Iraq.
Iranian militias have been actively aided by the Syrian regime under its notorious Decree 10 to purchase homes of Syrians who migrated elsewhere during the war. Some militia members have reportedly also confiscated property and brought their families from Iraq and Lebanon to settle inside Syria.
Syrian experts say this demographic and cultural penetration is directed at increasing the numbers of Shiites in Syria to enable Iran to claim political power on their behalf. If there are a significant number of Shiites in the country, then Iran can claim to represent their interests when a final political solution for the Syrian crisis is discussed, and it can ask that they be given positions in the government, the armed forces, and other institutions. Many fear Iran wants to exert influence through supporters within the system and not just through a beholden president whose support could waver depending on deals he makes with Russia and the United Arab Emirates, which has been trying to bring him back into the Arab fold.
Unlike Lebanon and Iraq, however, Syria is dominantly Sunni, and that makes it an uphill task for the Iranian regime. Despite the challenges, Iran seems undeterred.
Ahmad, 24, who speak with 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 with his family during the conflict. He returned in 2018 when his friend told him that all his worries could end if he joined an Iranian militia. A Sunni, he joined the Sayyidah Zaynab battalions, named after the granddaughter of Prophet Mohammed and daughter of Imam Ali, the patriarch of Shiites.
“My friend in al-Mayadeen said I could come back and join the Iranians and nobody would hurt me or my family,” Ahmad told Foreign Policy from Set Zaynab, a town that is home to the shrine of Sayyidah Zaynab 6 miles south of Damascus and completely under the grip of Iran-backed militias.
Ahmad works as a guard at the shrine and gets paid 100,000 Syrian pounds (around $200) a month, but he needed more cash to pay for his father’s kidney dialysis twice a month. In February, the leader of his militia offered to double his pay if he converted to Shiism himself. Ahmad agreed at once. “Recently we had a meeting with our militia leader who said we would be promoted and get money if we converted to Shiism and just listened to some lectures at Sayyidah Zaynab,” he told Foreign Policy. “I said yes along with 20 other men because all of us need money. If I am Shiite I will be paid 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 southwestern Syria near Jordan, recounted 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. “He gets free medical services and a monthly gas cylinder despite the economic crisis in Syria.” Taim al-Ahmad said his friend suddenly had benefits denied to other Syrians, including a security permit from Syrian intelligence to travel anywhere in the country “without being subjected to harassment.”
Deir Ezzor province is perhaps the key zone of these operations. Abu Kamal, a city at the province’s main crossing point with Iraq, has witnessed a lot of seemingly innocuous but manipulative Iranian activity in the recent past.
For instance, it has restored the Qarameesh park in Abu Kamal, which had been destroyed by the Islamic State, and renamed it “Friends Park.” (The Syrian regime advertises Iran as a “friend of the country.”) On a weekly basis, Iranian militias organize fun activities in the park to inform people, mainly children, about Shiite imams and advertise Iran as a righteous force challenging Israel and imperialism.
“All the fun and games are a ruse to indoctrinate the minds of the children and their parents to lure them to convert to Shiism,” said Sayah Abu Walid, an activist from Abu Kamal. The sports club in the city has turned into a kitchen and a restaurant for Iranian militias. The whole soccer stadium is now effectively a base for an Iranian takeover, Abu Walid said.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitor, Iran recently invited the people of Mayadeen to the Nour Iranian Cultural Center to attend a course on the principles and doctrines of Shiite religion. At the end of the course, all who pass would be given money, about 100,000 Syrian pounds, and a food basket.
Iran has opened a number of religious schools, shrines, and charities in Syria. While it faced less resistance in Damascus and Aleppo, to expand into Deir Ezzor Iran had to entice local tribal leaders, who are often more interested in their own survival and would back whoever is the rising star. Some members of one such tribe, al-Bakara, have responded positively to Iranians mainly because of a tribal leader who sees advantage in currying favor with Iran.
On the other side of the border, Iran’s interests are well guarded by militias like Asaib Ahl al-Haq, an armed group that Tehran supports but that operates under the banner of the Popular Mobilization Forces as part of Iraqi security services. Moreover, Russia’s lack of interest in Deir Ezzor means Iran does not have to compete to set up camp there.
Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat currently in exile in the United States, said that the Iranian presence and activities have sowed the seeds of a future insurgency in his country. “There are bound to be clashes to oppose Persian invasion,” Barabandi said. “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 instance, they like their drink. Alawites told the Iranians goodbye and good luck. Iranians found it easier to manipulate Syrians worst affected by the war and hence the expansion in areas formerly held by the Islamic State.”
Navvar Saban, a conflict expert at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies who specializes in Syria-Iran relations, said Iran had slowly but steadily cultivated ties with Syrians of all backgrounds. “Iran bought real estate in Deir Ezzor and in Kurdish-held areas through locals,” he said. “They weaved a spider’s web in Syria and have their people everywhere, in the army, in the government, even among Sunni and Christian businessmen.”
Former U.S. President Donald Trump imposed debilitating sanctions on the Iranian regime under his “maximum pressure” campaign, yet 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 trade fair in Damascus in six years. Most of the kiosks, 31 of them, belonged to Iranian companies selling everything from power plants to biscuits to soap. Two years later, the Syrian-Iranian Joint Chamber of Commerce was set up, and just last month an Iranian delegation traveled to Damascus to ramp up efforts to increase its economic footprint in Syria.
Observers worry that Iran, which never reined in its intervention in Syria despite Trump’s sanctions, will flood money to its armed militias and to its charities encouraging conversion in Syria once new U.S. President Joe Biden rejoins the nuclear deal. Two years after the Iran nuclear deal was inked, Tehran reportedly quadrupled its funding to Hezbollah.
There is no data on how many Syrians Iran has managed to convert to Shiism or how many it has softened toward its ideas. But its military, cultural, and economic expansion is creating new fault lines in a country already fragile on all fronts. It’s easy to see how Iran’s expansion could exacerbate sectarian tensions in the region.
Anchal Vohra is a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East. Twitter: @anchalvohra