In Syria, some see Iran as an occupation force
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.”