Is Assad granting citizenship to Iran-backed fighters in Syria?

Recipients of Syrian citizenship reportedly include members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Afghan militiamen and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Thursday 29/11/2018
A Syrian man holds the Iranian flag as a convoy carrying aid provided by Iran arrives in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, in 2017. (AFP)
A Syrian man holds the Iranian flag as a convoy carrying aid provided by Iran arrives in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, in 2017. (AFP)

LONDON – Syrian President Bashar Assad is being accused of granting Syrian citizenship to foreign militiamen trained by Iran so they can settle in the war-torn country after the conflict is over.

The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), citing media reports published by Arab media outlets critical of the Assad regime, said the recipients of Syrian citizenship include members Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Afghan militiamen and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

The allegations could not be independently verified. One report produced a document purportedly showing a request from Aassd asking his government to add a list of Iranian nationals to Syria's civil registers in the governorates of Damascus, Rif Dimashq, Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor.

Iran previously granted Iranian citizenship to Afghan refugees who fought or had families members die fighting for Tehran in Syria. Iran's aim was to incentivise foreign fighters to support the Assad regime, which has lost much of its manpower to deaths and defections. 

There are a number of suspected motives for Assad to grant the fighters' Syrian citizenship.  

One is to change to the demographic make up of these areas, replacing Sunni Syrians with new Shia residents who would be less likely to challenge the regime’s grip on power or, should there ever be free elections in Syria, vote for Assad’s opponents.

Another motive could be to plant pro-Iranian operatives in Syria for the long run. “Iran is planning to have a strategic, long-term presence in Syria,” Syrian analyst Ghassan Ibrahim told Alhadath television.

Ibrahim said that Iran fears that its client, Assad, may eventually step down following a US-Russian deal, depriving Tehran of influence in Syria's future. The presence of a significant number of Iranian loyalists would guarantee Tehran continued influence, explained Ibrahim.

Granting citizenship to Hezbollah fighters is likely to raise concerns in Israel.

“Concealing the presence of Iranian and Hezbollah fighters in southern Syria could be seen as contravening understandings reached between Israel and Russia to keep such groups away from the Jewish state’s northern border,” reported the Jerusalem Post.

“The issuance of Syrian identity cards to Iranian and Hezbollah fighters may be aimed at enabling them to stay there, ostensibly without violating the understandings,” the Post added.

The Syrian regime has often been accused of seeking demographic changes in Syria that would enable Assad to stay in power, the latest example being the country's notorious property law.

Credible accusations of intentional population transfers aside, however, some analysts dismissed allegations of the regime handing out Syrian citizenship to thousands of people as inaccurate.