Iran’s soft power offensive in eastern Syria
By Hannah Wallace
Along the Iranian border in Syria’s Deir Ezzor province, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) recently purchased two homes and tracts of adjacent land for 700 million Syrian pounds (US$150,000) with the funds provided by Iran’s Hajj organization. A massive new hotel will soon be built on the spot, according to Abdulaziz Al-Sawadi, head of the Political Bureau of the Liberation and Construction Movement, to accommodate Iranian and Iraqi pilgrims.
This is just a sliver of the hundreds of millions of dollars Tehran is pouring into the province, and it’s not merely to accommodate the growing number of visiting Shia — though there is a lot of that.
The Abdullah bin Abbas Mosque in Albukamal, for instance, was recently renovated into a pilgrims’ residence to protect many newly built Shia shrines. To protect these, Iran has established the Liwa Hurras al-Maqamat (The Guardians of Holy Shrines Brigade).
In a sign of the depth of Iranian influence, Iranian cultural centres, Farsi language schools, and Shia seminaries, known as husseiniyat, are also popping up in the eastern governorate. Banners and posters bearing the image of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, adorn more and more buildings, many of which were seized by Iran years ago and used to store weapons and house troops. This is despite 98 per cent of Deir Ezzor’s population being Sunni Arab.
Iran’s fast-growing presence in Deir Ezzor is an effort to protect its holdings in Syria and Western Iraq, such as the massive Imam Ali military base in the desert around Albukamal, and many smaller military bases and barracks for a dozen or so militias that the IRGC trains, equips and directs. Much of the money to sustain this ever-growing hard and soft power presence comes from the sale of Syrian oil and antiquities, and from running smuggling rackets along the Euphrates River with territories controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces.
While Tehran’s local military activities have garnered considerable international attention-- including the triggering of US air strikes this week in eastern Syria that targeted areas used by militias backed by Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard -- its soft power and economic objectives have been largely overlooked. Iran hopes that its soft power offensive can win over local Sunni Arabs to its side, and perhaps even convert them to Shia Islam, the state religion of Iran. The West tends not to view such developments as presenting a clear and present danger, but many locals from Deir Ezzor complain that it is tantamount to demographic change.
"Iran is implementing its social and religious programmes that will lead to what is termed political Shiism” laments Al-Sawadi, a native of Deir Ezzor who now lives in northern Syria.
The Syrian province is central to Iran’s ongoing effort to carve out a Shia crescent from Iran through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. Its attempts to alter the demographic and religious character of the region date back almost to the Iranian Revolution. In the 1980s, Syria’s then-president Hafez al-Assad chose the village of Hatla, east of Deir Ezzor on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, to be a springboard for this influence. Iran opened a few cultural centres and organized some local events. This may not have made any noticeable impact on the local religious landscape, yet it laid the groundwork for future efforts.
After Assad regime forces, backed by Tehran and Moscow, expelled ISIS from Deir Ezzor in 2017, Iranian efforts solidified, starting with the opening of an IRGC-run cultural centre in 2018 in the neighbourhood of Al-Baladiyah Villas. Iran has since adopted a two-pronged approach that involves tying local elites such as businessmen, local administrators and tribal leaders to Tehran’s project in the region and winning over the youth to create a long-term pro-Iran popular base of support.
Winning over local elites
A decade of conflict devastated some 75 per cent of Deir Ezzor’s infrastructure. The IRGC’s development arm, the Jihad al-Bina organisation, has stepped in to rebuild schools, hospitals and public parks. It has often won Syrian government tenders by utilising the influence that it enjoys in local municipal authorities and relevant ministries in Damascus such as the Housing and Education ministries. By being an actor on the reconstruction and economic development side, Iran aims to win over the support of local elites who profit financially but also politically from maintaining an intimate relationship with the IRGC.
Tehran also exploits locals’ need for basic services, such as agricultural fertilizer and farm machinery, for instance, or building free clinics and distributing vaccines, to promote itself as a benign actor. few locals are fooled by this largesse but given the lack of alternatives, they gladly accept it.
“People in Deir Ezzor switch sides very easily depending on who is winning,” says Syrian affairs expert Malik al-Abdeh. “Many of those who covert are pretending. They will switch if the tide turns; Iran knows that which is why it’s focusing on the youth.”
Indoctrinating the youth
The cultural centres that have sprung up primarily aim to spread Shia doctrines among the local youth in line with Iran’s Islamic Revolution. The centres organise festivities on Shia holidays, set up scout groups, and organise paramilitary-style training for school children - all under the watchful eye of IRGC officials. When children attend courses set up by these centres, their parents are given financial and food aid. Children as young as nine are recruited to study Farsi and Shia doctrines, as part of activities organised by the Imam al-Mahdi scouts, run by the Lebanese militia Hezbollah. As would be expected, many “graduating” scouts end up joining the ranks of IRGC-affiliated militias in Syria.
Schools run by the Syrian government are not immune to the Iranian soft power offensive. High school students are offered grants to study in Iran, and those who accept later return to Syria with Farsi language skills and are then employed by the IRGC, given security privileges, and patronised by powerful pro-Iran figures in the Syrian government.
In a region that is overwhelmingly Sunni and Arab, Iran is embedding itself culturally and religiously as well as militarily. Its immediate impact might be easy to gauge, but whether it can sustain a soft-power offensive in a way that fundamentally alters a region’s political affiliation and demographic make-up is harder to ascertain at this stage with any degree of certainty. Cross the Euphrates River into SDF-held territory and you will see locals from the same tribes as those on the western bank who are vehemently anti-Iran who say that they are willing to fight IRGC-affiliated militias should they attempt to expand.
There is no doubt that some of those who participate in Iran’s cultural and religious propagation programmes are only pretending to do so. Some converts embracing Shia Islam and the ideals of the Iranian Revolution are acting out of necessity given the dire economic situation and security pressures. But undoubtedly there will be some who buy into it.
“As long as there is a dearth in alternative powers and projects in Deir Ezzor, given time and resources Iran’s goal of embedding itself permanently in eastern Syria will be realised,” says Malik Al-Abdeh.