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Syria’s civil war has been going on for 9 years, with devastating consequences in the long run and a dangerous regional power game. What ignited a civil war brought ashore a persisting, vital issue for the country: the Syrian government, the Al-Assad family, belongs to the Alawite creed, a branch of Shia Islam and is, hence, the minority elite. Much like Lebanon, Syria is home to several ethnicities that tend to inhabit specific areas, each with its own concerns and historical courses.
The fact that Sunni Arabs were the major group to demonstrate Al-Assad’s regime had a reason and has had its consequences, as Al-Assad’s retaliation, internal and external policy have affected all Syrians, and not only.
Although compromised from the international sanctions, Iran keeps sending militias from Iraq to enter Syria via Deir ez-Zor and Eastern regions in order to influence local tribesmen and sheikhs to convert to Shia Islam.
There are several methods to gain control over a nation or country, and Iran is playing its strategic card efficiently.
Syria is geographically big, and its peoples and way of life vary from West to East, from main cities to smaller, isolated ones. Given that the conflict has stricken all of Syria, it goes unsaid that the different regions have suffered an impact related to their respective areas. Deir ez-Zor, the largest city in eastern Syria, has been under IS’ siege and, like other Syrian eastern cities, suffered greatly from the conflict, which affected peoples’ lives, work, and sustainment. It is precisely those people whom the Iranian regime targets, as they are more vulnerable than those in the main cities in western Syria. Those affected by the Iranian regime’s policy of religious influence are partly Syrians from the east who were compelled to move to Damascus and the western areas due to ISIS’ attacks.
But it is not solely Iran who is playing the card: Hezbollah has been recruiting people from the Deir ez-Zor area – and giving them a salary – in order to potentiate the mission’s message. Once this bifocal system has been established solidly, the Iran-backed militias and institutions gain power over people’s life, property, and access to basic resources. Those who oppose are coerced until they agree to be under their umbrella. In addition, cash is offered by Syrian and Iranian Shiites to civilians and tribal leaders in order to gain their favour. Whoever criticizes such events often gets arrested with the claims that they are Wahhabists and opponents to the regime.
Calls for an investigation have been echoed by Yazidis who say their small religious community, long persecuted by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, is also targeted.
The Al-Assad’s have formalized ties with Iranian and Lebanese Shiites, as a means of having their Alawite creed legitimized nationally and in the region, which already began a path of public acceptance of Shiism in Syria. The formalization and strategic alliance between Syria and Iran in the 1980s have ever increased, until the point that it has granted Iran some ground to operate and participate in Syrian events – some political, some cultural – ever since. The phenomenon seems to be increasing.
In the Damascene Sunni suburbs that were bombed, there has been a demographic swap in which Shiites from Iran and Afghanistan were transferred to the area once the Sunnis were expelled. Most of them were transferred so that they could solidify Shiite presence and hinder Arab Sunni populations.
Nonetheless, the demographic rise of the Shia in Syria isn’t just due to a swap. There has been a notable increase of Sunnis, Alawites, and Ismailis to Shia Islam in these last years, which can be attributed to several cultural, geographic, and political factors; and the fact that Iranian and Iraqi immigrants in Syria have adapted successfully to their host country doesn’t seem enough of a strong reason.
Conversion to Shiism is predominant among middle-class families, although there is a 3% who converted for economic reasons (especially university students). Television channels like Al-Manar, broadcasting from Lebanon, and Iraqi Shiite slots, both promoting Shiite missionary work, are seen in Syria’s media. In addition, there has been an alleged naturalization of Iranian Shiites and Iraqi Shia in Syria, counting up to twenty thousand individuals according to some sources.
Newly converted Syrians to Shiism that desire to partake in a holy war are sent to southern Lebanon, with the knowledge and permission of the government, the secret services, and, of course, with complete favoritism from the Iranian regime.
Moving to southern Syria and Lebanon serves as a way to put proxy forces in the south – thus letting Iran have control from its borders and areas of influence (Iraq), to Syria and Lebanon, the door to Israel. However, Iran’s proxy presence in southern Syria is a matter of debate.
According to the Syria International Religious Freedom Report of 2019 and other academic sources, the Syrian government has attacked and given hardship to the majority Sunni Muslim areas, as they have opposed the Alawi, Iranian-friendly regime of Al-Assad and have thus shown support for the Syrian Sunni militias rebel to the government. Part of that hardship given to Sunnis is the residents’ replacement in former opposition-held areas with people loyal to the government, according to a report from the Carnegie Middle East Center. Most of the citizens who are kidnapped – and never heard of, except a few that have survived and fled – have been associated with populations who haven’t shown support for the Syrian government, and it has been mainly the militias who acted with rampant waves of violence in that regard.
But it isn’t only Iran who tries to ripe benefit from Syria’s despair and bankruptcy: Turkey has been trying to become a solid regional actor since Erdoǧan’s rise to power, and the Kurdish fight can as well be perpetrated in Syria – while trying to gain internal influence in the country. Like his Syrian analogue, Erdoǧan has been accused of widespread abuses in certain parts of Syria, mainly arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, and confiscation of property for several reasons. The most notorious case on Turkey’s part in the conflict is that of Afrin, a north-western city mainly inhabited by Syrian Kurds, who were expelled and bombed during the war – only to come back to find their properties occupied by Arabs from other Syrian provinces.
According to an article of the Financial Times, the powers in Syria’s backend – Assad, Putin, and Erdogan, namely – have individual interests that take benefit in the demographic change that occurs in Syria since the war began in 2011. Given that Sunni Arabs were the majority that demonstrated against the minority regime of Bashar Al-Assad, removing them from their areas and converting them forcefully, is an interesting turn of events for the Turkish president, who allegedly would want to “dilute” Syrian Kurdish influence by the settling of millions of Sunni Arabs in traditional Kurdish areas. The vulnerability of Sunni IDPs (internally displaced persons) allows, in turn, for Iran to play its card of amassing Iranian Shias and native Syrians to increase Shiite influence in the war-torn country.
This phenomenon was already present at the beginning of the Syrian Civil War – seen that the conflict has degraded and that regional powers have been moving their cards, while the Syrian population keeps on suffering, leads us to believe that this problem is still ongoing on the surface and under it. Neighboring countries such as Jordan have shown concern regarding the militias and a rising Iranian presence in Syria.
Taking advantage of a depleted country that is still living in war and poverty may very well be a strategy to slowly gain control of vast areas of the Middle East and destabilize whole populations and their social structures.