In Syria, some see Iran as an occupation force

Friday 08/01/2016
Funeral of Brigadier-General Hossein Hamedani, killed in Syria, last October

BEIRUT - Back in February 2013, when Iran was starting to build up its military pres­ence in war-torn Syria to support the flailing and widely despised President Bashar Assad, a senior and shadowy fig­ure in the inner circle of the Tehran regime declared: “Syria is the 35th province (of Iran) and a strategic province for us. If the enemy at­tacks us and wants to appropriate either Syria or Khuzestan, the pri­ority is to keep Syria.”

Hojjat al-Islam Mehdi Taeb, head of the Ammar Strategic Base, a radical think-tank associated with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, went on to say in an address to university students in the Basij paramilitary force: “If we keep Syria, we can get Khuzestan back too. But if we lose Syria, we cannot keep Tehran.”

Khuzestan, a largely Arab prov­ince in south-western Iran border­ing Iraq, is the centre of Iran’s oil industry and so has immense stra­tegic value. Taeb’s words thus un­derline how important Syria is to Iran as its Levantine spearhead and to its ambition to become the domi­nant power in the Middle East.

Almost three years on, the world’s only Shia-controlled state, is widely perceived to control the embattled quasi-Shia regime in Da­mascus and to be the military force that determines security strategy and its implementation. Iran’s mili­tary commander in Syria, Major- General Qassem Soleimani, who commands the elite Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), or Pasdaran, is Teh­ran’s pro-consul with all the power of the Iranian regime behind him. Assad lives in his shadow.

“All military operations in Syria are being run, commanded, con­trolled, organised and coordinated by the Pasdaran and Hezbollah,” said Fouad Hamdan, a Lebanese analyst. “Not a single battle hap­pens in Syria without them know­ing and coordinating and even giv­ing the orders for it to happen…

“What regime are we talking about in Syria? It doesn’t exist any­more. It’s an empty shell,” he said. Assad and his inner circle “are de facto hostages of… Soleimani. The whole family is still there. No one can fly, no one can leave…

“The Assad regime would have collapsed long ago if it was not for this Iranian support. The Iranian regime and its Shia militias are ef­fectively an occupying force in the so-called regime-held areas in Syria.”

In February 2013, former Syrian prime minister Riyad Hijab, who defected the previous August, told Al Arabiya television that Syria was “occupied by Iran” and was run by Soleimani, the architect of Iran’s largely covert paramilitary cam­paign to subvert and take over Arab states in the Gulf and the Levant.

Naame Shaam (Letter from Syr­ia), a group of activists founded by Hamdan and Syrian activist Shair Youssef after the war began to monitor the Iranian presence in Syria, observed in a September 2014 report: “There is abundant evidence that the Iranian regime has established and is exercising authority in Syria, both directly through its armed forces and mili­tias and indirectly through the Syr­ian regime.

“The evidence includes new military command structures in­volving Iranian commanders, fun­damental changes introduced into Syrian government institutions as a result of the Iranian regime’s in­tervention, as well as statements by Iranian officials indicating how they view their role in Syria.”

Syrian opposition activists told The Arab Weekly that Iranian offic­ers control all regional operations centres, which has had a demoral­ising effect on Syrian troops who are widely despised by the Irani­ans. “Syrian officers, among them Alawites, have become secondary members, whose tasks can some­times be reduced to handing out tea and coffee,” said one who iden­tified himself as Abu Said.

There has been persistent specu­lation that the Iranians were be­hind the assassination of four Syri­an regime security chiefs, members of a high-powered 11-man “crisis cell” on July 18, 2012, apparently in a bombing at the highly secure National Security headquarters in Damascus.

The explosion killed Defence Minister Daoud Rajha; Major- General Assef Shawkat, Assad’s brother-in-law, former military in­telligence chief and Rajha’s deputy; vice-president Hasan Turkmani; and Hisham Ikhtiyar, the national security chief and Assad’s security adviser.

The bombing was claimed by both the Free Syrian Army and another rebel group known as the Islam Brigade. However, Naame Shaam claimed that Western intel­ligence services believe it was the work of IRGC agents “possibly with direct orders from General Soleim­ani”.

Naame Shaam maintains the Syr­ian leaders were killed “because some members of the ‘crisis cell’ had been opening communications channels with Arab Gulf states and the US to make a deal behind the back of Iran. The Pasdaran struck to prevent such a deal, and since then, fully control President Assad, who de facto became their hostage.”

Hamdan and Youssef concluded in a December 14, 2014, report that the relationship between Iran and Syria — one the only Shia power in the Muslim world and the other ruled since 1970 by a regime domi­nated by the Alawite sect, a Shia offshoot — has changed since the war began.

“From historically being mutu­ally beneficial allies, the Iranian re­gime is now effectively an ‘occupy­ing force’ with the responsibilities that accompany such a role,” they wrote.

In some quarters, it is said that the United States, which has dog­gedly refused to be dragged into the complex Syrian conflict, even agreed to give Tehran a relatively free rein in Syria in exchange for Iran’s participation in the nego­tiations that produced the nuclear agreement in Vienna.

Both are fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) and its caliphate span­ning Syria and Iraq in an unde­clared alliance given substance by the agreement curbing Tehran’s nuclear project, a deal widely seen as a rapprochement between the long-time adversaries.

There is growing evidence that Iran is seeking to alter Syria’s demo­graphics by helping Assad’s regime drive majority Sunnis from their traditional areas and transplanting Syrian Alawites, along with Iranian, Lebanese, Iraqi and Afghani Shias to refashion Syria into a Shia-domi­nated entity, cutting loose outer re­gions populated by Sunnis or other ethnic groups such as the Kurds.

This, Hamdan and Youssef allege, has spawned massive purchases of businesses, industrial concerns and vast amounts of real estate, usually at knock-down prices, by Iranians and figures in Assad’s inner circle, such as his maternal cousin Rami Makhlouf, whose family runs a huge business empire that has long been the regime’s much-favoured financial arm.

In conjunction with the IRGC’s own vast commercial holdings in Iran, including the country’s big­gest construction conglomerate, Tehran appears to be preparing to maintain this controlling presence for the foreseeable future, with As­sad as a Syrian figurehead of what­ever rump state emerges from the carnage that will maintain Iran’s vital supply routes through Syria to Hezbollah, Tehran’s first and most successful proxy, in Lebanon.

Iran’s strategic purpose in Syria appears to be the creation of a Shia state comprising Damascus, the oil-rich north-east, the north-western region along the Mediterranean coast that embraces the Alawite heartland and the Qalamoun re­gion on the western border with Lebanon and to conduct a sectarian cleansing that will make it exclu­sively Shia.

They point to the battle for the strategic western border town of Qusayr in April-June 2013 as a sig­nificant turning point in the war be­cause it was won by Hezbollah, the forerunner of other Shia militias created by the IRGC that are now the military spearhead of Iran’s ex­pansionist ambitions.

After Qusayr, “there was a notice­able shift in the Iranian regime’s military strategy in Syria: conced­ing, or perhaps losing interest in, the possibility of regaining control of the eastern and northern parts of the country that were now under the rebels’ control,” Naame Shaam said.

“Instead the focus from 2013 on would be on defending and con­solidating the Syrian and Iranian regimes’ control in Damascus and its surroundings, Homs and its surroundings (which connect the first with the coast region) and the Qalamoun region (which connects the first two and connects both with Lebanon)…

“At the same time, loyalist zones or corridors had to be created and secured. And the ‘easiest’ way to achieve this, it seems, was to change the demographic composi­tion of those areas; that is, to empty them of all ‘wanted elements’, who happened to be Sunni, and replace them with loyal ones, namely Alawis and Shia militants and civil­ians, both local and foreign.

“The mass destruction and ap­propriation of civilian property and the forcible displacement and transfer of civilian population… ap­pear to be part of this policy.”