Iran’s efforts at consolidation in Syria’s Deir Ezzor area
OMAR ABU LAYLA
*The author is a Syrian expert who focuses on security and governance dynamics in northeast Syria. CEO @DeirEzzor24, which has a group of researchers inside the country.
Iran plays a key role in Syria. Teheran was the crucial regional actor which elected to rescue its key ally, President Bashar Assad, and in so doing prevented him from being overthrown. Iran intervened in Syria using the instrument of its militias from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and Shiite fighters from further afield. Teheran now seeks not only to entrench its military presence in Syria, but also to penetrate the social structures of key areas of the country by spreading Shiism, and promoting the virtues of the Velayat-e-Faqih (governance of the Jurisprudent) system, by which Iran itself is governed.
Iran has selected specific, strategic geographical locations in Syria for this activity. One of the most prominent locations among these is Deir Ezzor governorate, and specifically the cities and environs of al-Mayadeen and al-Bukamal.
Iran has seized a number of civilian buildings in al-Mayadeen, and has established a large security compound in the area. While Israel’s campaign against Iran in Syria seeks to threaten the Iranian-led militias on Syrian soil, Iran is at present still enhancing its presence on different levels.
Iran’s strategic plans to preserve its long-term presence in Syria involve the spreading of Shiism in Eastern Syria and trying to penetrate Sunni tribes using different means such as providing aid, offering young men incentives to join Iranian militias, activating the role of the Iranian Cultural Center and Iran-affiliated charity societies, and reviving the historic linking of some prominent tribes with Shiism, such as the al-Baqara Tribe. Iran-linked parties promote that this tribe is descended from the Shiite Imam al-Baqer.
Spreading and Promoting Shia Islam in Deir Ezzor
Efforts to proselytize and spread Shia Islam in Deir Ezzor date back to the 1980s. Omar al-Hamadi, a Syrian army officer hailing from the area who served in the Syrian military in the coastal area of Latakia governorate, and himself embraced Shia Islam played a prominent early role in this effort. Al-Hamadi maintained strong relations with officers of the Syrian Army.
Hamadi’s efforts marked the beginning of Shiism in Deir Ezzor. Yaseen al-Ma’yoof, a cousin of Hamadi, also played a significant early role in promoting Shiism in the area. Al-Ma’yoof is from the village of Hattla, in eastern Deir Ezzor. Ma’yoof joined the Shi’ite al-Murtadda Society established by Jamil Assad, younger brother of President Hafez Assad and uncle of the current Syrian president.  Jamil Assad was himself a convert to Shia Islam.
The Shiite call for prayer was first heard in Hattla in 1992 when al-Ma’yood returned from Iran, under the Syrian authorities' knowledge and with their facilitation. This marked a new start for Shiism in Deir Ezzor, the residents of which are overwhelmingly Sunni. The early strategy for spreading Shiism adopted the approach of addressing material interests. Those who embraced Shiism received $100 as a monthly salary. This was equal to the salary of a governmental employee at the time. .
The call to embrace Shiism encountered significant obstacles in Deir Ezzor due to the absence of fertile doctrinal and ideological ground, or an identity common with the people of Deir Ezzor whose society is distinguished for its doctrinal unity and coherence. Tribalism is strong in the area, and made it difficult to penetrate.
The conditions of the Syrian conflict changed this to a degree, and prepared the atmosphere for different powers to intervene in the area. Since 2017 Iran has started to entrench its physical presence in Deir Ezzor, and alongside this has sought to spread and promote its brand of Shia Islam.
Iranian military strategy in Deir Ezzor
Iran has sought to establish a large number of outposts and positions in Deir Ezzor and to secure land routes between Iraq and Syria under its exclusive control.
Iraq provides a foothold for Iran and Iranian-affliated militias in Syria. Iran seeks to implement a similar scenario in Deir Ezzor to the existing reality on the other side of the border. It is thus making attempts to induce local society in Deir Ezzor in return for significant guarantees - the first of which is protecting the area against the Syrian regime as this is the major concern of people of the area. This element is encouraging young men in areas west of the Euphrates to join Iranian militias. Poor economic conditions, unemployment, and lack of job opportunities are among the major factors that are pushing young men to join the Iran-linked militias.
The most important point is that in one way or another, the people of the area are now not under the Assad regime’s control. Rather, they are under the direct control of Iran.
Iran controls vital centers in the border area of Deir Ezzor starting from the city of al-Mayadeen down to that of al-Bukamal and the Iraqi border crossings. Iran controls the T2, T3, and T4 oil stations that link al-Bukamal badiya (desert) to the city of Homs. This is planned to secure logistical support from Iraq and vice versa.
Iranian militias are stationed in the city center of Deir Ezzor; however, they focus mainly on the Deir Ezzor countryside and the controlling of strategic areas adjacent to Iraq.
Iran seeks to gain multiple benefits by its military strategy abroad - such as exporting the Iranian internal crisis economically and politically, and winning new followers outside of Iran in accordance with the idea of exporting the Islamic revolution, established by Khomeini in the late 1970s.
Iran has been present in Deir Ezzor areas west of the Euphrates since Iranian-associated militias gained controlled of the area after defeating ISIS in 2017. Iran has generally failed to penetrate the tribal structures of the area. It has succeeded in recruiting significant numbers of young men, but its success in spreading Shia Islam is limited. Iran continues to follow a strategy of seeking to induce fighters of Iranian-linked militias to embrace Shiism slowly.
Iran has also tried to penetrate areas east of the Euphrates in which the International Coalition forces and the United States are present through their local allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Those areas include thousands of people who did not flee ISIS, but rather the Assad forces and their allies’ atrocities.
Iran and the tribes’ file
Iran tries to penetrate the tribes by inducing them to its side. They have enjoyed some success with the al-Baqara Tribe and Nawaf al-Basheer, with some of its members even embracing Shiism. But this is not a general example of Shiism’s success in Deir Ezzor. Iran currently tries to seduce tribes by providing services, aid, or money, positions, and intermediations with the Syrian regime for tribes’ leaders and people.
Iran’s dealing with areas east of the Euphrates has followed a different pattern. Teheran tried to ‘shuffle the cards’ to affect the American presence, foment instability and embarass its allies. Iran is widely suspected of responsibility for the assassination of a number of tribal dignitaries in Deir Ezzor. The recent and most influential of these was the assassination of Sheikh Muttashar al-Hafal and his companion in early August 2020 Even ISIS did not dare to carry out such killings when the organization controlled Deir Ezzor between 2014 and 2017. Assassinating tribal leaders is a high risk strategy, ‘playing with fire’ in terms of local conditions and alliance structures.
Despite the wide-scale activities of the Iranian Cultural Center and Iran-affiliated groups, and Iran’s clear methodology and strategy in attempting to penetrate the tribes, Iran has not achieved its objectives due to reasons related directly to deep seated differences preventing Tehran and the people of the Deir Ezzor area from coming together.
On the national level, Iran still identifies and is identified with its Persian, pre-revolutionary national identity. The people of Deir Ezzor are of course part of Syria’s Arab majority. On the doctrinal/religious level, although Islam in theory unifies Shiite and Sunni people, the doctrinal Shiite difference remains a point of separation from the vast Sunni majority in Deir Ezzor. The tribal structure of society in Deir Ezzor, meanwhile, provides the people of Deir Ezzor with sub-identities that are resistant to and contradict Iran’s efforts.
Despite ongoing, unclaimed strikes and disruption by Israeli aircraft, and despite the difficulties of penetrating Deir Ezzor’s social structures, Iran’s alliance with the Assad regime and its deep desire to remain in the area and for Deir Ezzor to constitute part of the Shia crescent between Tehran and Beirut have caused Iran to stick to its plans and continue its efforts. The long term presence of Iran could result in the formation of limited-size but effectual groups and structures, forming local ‘warlord’ type structures able to impact on society.
 The Syrian Network for Human Rights said that Iranian militias piled earth barrens and distributed cement blocks around houses that the militias seized. The militias raised Qasem Suleimani’s photos. To review the article, click the link.  Babek Taqway, an Iranian military and security analyst said that Russian officials pressured their Iranian counterparts to avoid increasing their military presence in southern Syria so that Russia’s interests are not put at risk. This was the start of a wide-scale operation to transport the al-Quds Corps fighters to Eastern Syria after defeating Daesh in Deir Ezzor. After that, the al-Quds Corps and affiliated forces controlled the al-Bukamal area after defeating Daesh in the Deir Ezzor governorate and turned the area into a major base for Iran in Syria. From an article published in the Persian Independent. To read the article click the link.  Deir Ezzor 24 Network posted news of activities of the Iranian Cultural Center such as rehabilitating mosques symbolic to people of Deir Ezzor, and holy ceremonies on the occasion of the start of Muharam month for the Shiites. To view click the link.  The Deir Ezzor 24 Network released a study titled ‘Shiism in Deir Ezzor , stages of enhancing Shiism from beginning until now’. The study said the following: It is known that the al-Baqara Tribe that is one of the largest tribes in Syria and the second largest tribe in Deir Ezzor is Sunni even if its ancestry belongs to Imam Muhammad al-Baqer. Such an account has been promoted after Shiism spread among people of the tribe in the 1980s. Shiism spread widely after the start of the Syrian Revolution.The al-Baqara Tribe’s practical approach of religion even before Shiism spread has nothing to do with Shiism because the al-Baqara Tribe is Sunni as all Shiism attempts failed to change the reality of the tribe. Those who embraced Shiism were individual cases in this large tribe. To view the study click the link.  The al-Murttada Society is a charity society which Jamil al-Assad established. Al-Assad called himself al-Imam al-Murttada. The society lasted between 1981-1983 when it was dissolved after Jamil al-Assad stood with his brother Rifat in an attempt to seize power following Hafez al-Assad’s illness. Hafez al-Assad ordered dissolving the society after he recovered. You can view details of the society and the start of Shiism in Syria by searching the Shiite al-Baath in Syria. To view the research and more details click the link.  You can view more details in the research that the Deir Ezzor 24 Network published under the title Shiism in Deir Ezzor , stages of enhancing Shiism from beginning until now’ a former source.  To view more details of the assassination and its repercussions in east of the Euphrates areas you can view a study that the Deir Ezzor 24 Network published under the title Assassinationg prominent dignitaries of al-Akidat Tribe. To view the study click the link.