Middle East Politics

Syria is Going Down the Same Road as Iraq


The political scene in Syria is growing ever more complicated. Assad’s regime continues to publicly celebrate ‘victories’ over what it calls opposition forces after claiming it has seized their strongholds, with the aim of boosting the morale of its backers’.  They are not managing this by themselves, though, instead relying on support and militia from Iran and Hezbollah.   Besides, they are attempting to change the demographic makeup in some regions of Syria, replacing Sunni Arabs with Shi’ites after Sunnis have been forced from their homes due to the civil war.

The chaotic and longstanding war is changing the very composition of the Levant area, which includes Damascus, as the Syrian regime allows Iran to use it as their training ground – and a place from which to launch terrorist attacks against the world.  The Iranian regime is, of course, Shi’ite, so can be argued to be a golden opportunity for them to influence Assad in consolidating their shared ideological viewpoints.

The price of war is always high, and Syria is no different, bringing social tensions and economic collapse.  In Syria, however, there are more subtle adverse changes for Syrians.  As the Iran regime’s influence there strengthens, it is coming to resemble a kind of military occupation.  There have been ‘negotiations’ organized by Iran involving Russia and Turkey which have not even been endorsed, or attended, by Syria, suggesting once more they consider Assad’s regime actually to be subordinates rather than leaders.

An example of this was the event of last week, when the Iran regime is commenting that it was impossible to imagine them withdrawing from Syria, citing the threat from ISIS.  It seems to many that Syrians, therefore, have only two options, both undesirable and disturbing – choosing ISIS terrorist control or that by the Iran militia.

In light of Iranian meddling and engagement in Syria, it is certainly a possibility that the biggest threat to Syria’s stability is, in fact, the potential influence of Iran’s Shi’ite regime.  As they have done in Iran itself, the regime is expert at turning Sunni’s against Shi’ites, with resulting sectarian violence and persecution.  It should not be forgotten that it was successful at this ‘divide and conquer’ tactic in Iraq so that Syria would be far from a precedent.  The interference of the Iran regime in Iraq has led to a new wave of violence in Iraq which will no doubt require reactions and presence from the international community, so should be taken very seriously where we see its infancy in Syria now.

It would be a national and regional disaster to allow the creation of sectarian and tribal divisions as seen today in Iraq to occur in Syria.  In Iraq, the consequences are that there is no order and it is impossible to form state mechanisms in Iraq which can look after its citizens’ needs with regard to health, education, housing, and basic infrastructure and state control.

In the light of these developments, and Iranian General Qassem Suleimani’s blatant and public boasting of the Iranian regime’s military and political control in Syria, these threats are now a grave issue.  The Syrian regime seems to be taking a very passive role in all this, confining itself to a seeming positive publicity campaign directed towards international media.  Meanwhile, Iran and Hezbollah reap regional benefits and gains in their power.  They are effectively moving ahead full steam with demographic change by settling families of Shi’ite fighters in Syria, who are not just Syrians, but also originate from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.  It does not take much imagination to see that, under the Iran regime’s erstwhile control, Syria is fast becoming an international terrorist hotbed.

The facts are that evidence of Iran’s military presence in Syria can be seen through a review of military names directly affiliated with Iran and the IRGC, both in terms of leadership, funding, or ideological allegiance.  They pose no idle threat in this country and region.

The role of Hezbollah, another terrorist organization, also needs to be considered.  They have been in Syria since 2012. There are between 4000 and 9000 of their soldiers stationed there, with the number changing according to which areas they directly engage in.  It is widely known and acknowledged that the Iran regime direct (and train) Hezbollah forces.  Hezbollah also contributes to the displacement and expulsion of the Sunni population on the Lebanese border.  Hezbollah effectively serves as a proxy member of the Syrian army, wearing its insignia and emblems as a kind of camouflage.

Many sources report that, moreover, Hezbollah operatives have been carrying Syrian security ID cards since May 2011.  The Lebanese military wing’s move to an incursion into Syria under Iranian command has stirred widespread debate in Lebanon, which has more than once officially declared neutrality toward the Syrian civil war.  The party, however, insists on embroiling in the conflict, like the Iran regime, on the grounds of political schisms, to serve the Iranian agenda.

There is no such attempt at camouflage by the Iranian regime, however.  It boldly moved into Syrian territory in full view of the world.  The hated Quds Force is well known to be in charge of Iran military operations external to Iran but is an arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, designated worldwide as a terrorist organization.  This is controlled directly by Iran’s ‘Supreme Leader’, Ali Khamenei.  This Quds Force is led by its field commander, Qassem Soleimani and currently has between 2000 and 5000 Iranians are at the very center of Syria, its tentacles engaged as fighters, commanders and advisors deep inside the Syrian regime forces.  It even extends to the Syrian Republican Palace itself.

The most horrific aspect is that related to the categories of the military formations who pursue sectarian lines which are moving loosely in the Syrian scene. The presence of such militias in Syria paints a bleak picture of the situation amid fears of repeating the Iraqi model in Syria.

Iran command also leads, funds and arms the Syrian National Defense Forces.  This is reminiscent of similar mobilization in Iraq and Hezbollah. It is made up of about 90,000 Syrian volunteers, mostly loyal to the Iran regime.

In addition to this, there are the Syrian Domestic Defense Forces.  These are peppered with Shi’ite combatants within a militia of 50,000 and are also commanded by figures loyal to the Syrian regime, whilst including members of Hezbollah.

As mentioned above, the issue is very complicated, but according to observers, the number of Shi’ite militias increases every day and currently comprises around 15,000.  Amongst them are the well-known Fatimiouyn Brigade, made up of Afghans and the Zaynabiyoun Brigade, whose members are mostly Pakistanis. They are being used as a striking offensive force. These militias are encouraged to permanently migrate with their families to Syria after they obtain Syrian citizenship and settle in Sunni areas, thus displacing the original inhabitants.

Finally, there are Lebanese and Iraqi mercenaries fighting in Syria with Iranian funding, but the most dangerous are the Shi’ite ‘rapid intervention forces. They include Iraqi and Lebanese forces affiliated with extremist Shiite political factions such as the Radwan Party of Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Iraqi Hezbollah, Al-Najba and Zulfiqar Brigade, al-Abbas Brigade and the 3,000-strong Jaafari force, whose numbers are replaced as soon as the missions are accomplished.  These groups are what the West would label ‘extremist Islamic terrorists’, but they are also spreading their own brand of terrorism into Syria.

To summarize, if we analyze the heavy Iranian military presence in Syria by examining the presence and purpose of the brigades as mentioned earlier, we can conclude that ignoring the increasing influence of Iran in the Levant has contributed (and will continue to contribute) significantly to the ongoing war and the consequent death toll and displacement of Sunnis in Syria.  Although complex, these machinations need to be taken account of, documented and dealt with, for the sake of Syrians, the region and indeed because of their international ramifications.

Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi Arab freelance journalist and human rights advocate who mainly writes about the plight of his people in Iran.

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