Iran fails to spread Shiism in Syria
Northern Syria - Iran’s 15-year effort to spread Shiism in Syria has garnered limited results despite strong financing and has been slowed by the war that started in 2011.
In 2000, Iran started building mosques and shrines dedicated to sacred figures in Shia tradition. Shias and Alawites were estimated at 3% of the overall Syrian population of 23 million in 2011 and lived mainly in Damascus and parts of Idlib, Homs and Aleppo provinces. Unofficial estimates put the number of Shias at no more than 50,000.
Hundreds of million dollars were spent to build mosques near Sayyidah Zaynab, a town south of Damascus believed to contain the grave of Zaynab, the daughter of Imam Ali ibn Abi Taleb, who is the most sacred figure in Shia Islam. Other mosques were built near Sayyidah Ruqayya, a Damascus district believed to contain the grave of Ruqayya, granddaughter of Ali.
Iranian plans to build mosques near Ammar ibn Yasser, a district in Raqqa believed to contain the grave of a key aide to Imam Ali, were foiled when Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime lost control of the eastern city soon after the revolution started in March 2011. Many Iranians and supporters of Iran were expelled or killed during clashes in Raqqa.
Towns near Deir ez-Zor, an eastern city, were home to widespread conversion to Shiism before the revolution. “Yassine El-Maayouf, whose in-law was an army serviceman, played a key role in this,” said Ahmad Mustafa, who hails from a town near Deir ez-Zor and now lives in Urfa on the Turkish side of the Syrian border.
“El-Maayouf and his followers received financial and moral support and he built a hussainiya (Shia mosque) in Hatla, a town near Deir ez-Zor that was home to 30,000 people,” Mustafa said. “However, only 800 people converted to Shiism.”
In Mhaymida, a smaller and poorer nearby town, efforts to convince people to convert to Shiism were more successful. “The group built a hussainiya there and exploited people’s poverty. They gave converts money and food and helped them find work,” Mustafa said, estimating converts to Shiism in Deir ez-Zor province to have reached 15,000 people by the eve of the revolution.
In early 2013, Hatla was taken over by opposition fighters, who arrested or killed many converts and burned the hussainiya. Many other converts fled to areas controlled by the regime, said Mustafa, who fled to Turkey when the Islamic State (ISIS) took over most of Deir ez-Zor province in mid- 2014. “El-Maayouf is believed to live now between Damascus, Tehran and Beirut.”
In Raqqa, Shia propaganda faced hurdles. Ammar ibn Yasser and two other aides of Ali ibn Abi Taleb — Ubay ibn Abi Ka’ab and Uwais al-Qarni — are buried there. Under late President Hafez Assad, the government built a large mosque encompassing the three graves. “For two decades, the mosque remained without finishing because the former president feared Iranian ambitions to take control of it,” said Firas el-Ali, a Raqqa resident who now lives in Urfa.
Two years after Assad died and his son Bashar took over in 2000, the mosque was finished and equipped under a contract granted to Tehran by Damascus, Ali said. “It was a major project conducted by Iranian experts, and it provided many Syrians with temporary jobs until the mosque was ready.”
The experts worked on propagating Shiism in Raqqa but only a relatively small number of families converted, Ali said. “Most of those who converted did so in return for aid the Iranians provided.” When the mosque was inaugurated, former Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was given a prominent place inside and an Iranian administered the mosque.
When Raqqa fell into rebel hands, many converts to Shiism were arrested and key figure among them, Hassan el-Saleh, was executed. Many others fled to government-controlled areas. When ISIS took over the city, it destroyed the mosque.
Shiism was present in southern Syria for hundreds of years. Shias were living generally in harmony with their neighbours of the Sunnite majority. “Shias have been living in Daraa since the beginning of the 20th century after many Lebanese Shias moved there for work,” said Mohammad el-Hariri, a native of Daraa.
There were no sectarian tensions in the province. In the late 1980s, El- Mortada Association, named after a title attributed to Ali ibn Abi Taleb, was formed to encourage conversion to Shiism. Run by Jamil Assad, a brother of the late Syrian president, the group did not achieve much success except in Qorfa, the hometown of the late Rustum Ghazali, who was Syria’s strongman in Lebanon from 2000-05, Hariri said from Urfa where he now lives.
“Since one of Ghazali’s relatives played a key role in El-Mortada Association, Shias close to Ghazali soon gained influence in Daraa. They also received aid from Iran. Many of them joined pro-government militias after the revolution broke out. But soon most of the south fell into rebel hands, and Shias left to government-controlled areas,” Hariri said.
Qorfa remains a government-controlled enclave in the region.
Mohammad Habash, a former lawmaker who fled to Dubai, denied rumours that Syria’s grand mufti, Sheikh Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun, had secretly converted to Shiism. Regarding Hassoun’s statements, which seem pro-Shia, Habash said the cleric “believes, as we do, in Islamic unity, but he was unable to tell (Shias) that their actions destabilise this unity.”