Iran’s Soft Power Campaign in Syria’s Deir al Zur Province: Advances and Limitations
By Omar Abu Layla
When Islamists led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took power in Iran in 1979, their intention was to establish a modern Islamic republic. On the one hand, they controlled decision making in the country in the name of God and established revolutionary courts. On the other hand, they established a national religious Islamic republic, adopting Shiite principles with a Persian national face. Khomeini also from the outset sought to build influence in neighboring Arab-Islamic countries. Iraq was the first place of focus. Efforts among Shia communities in Lebanon, Bahrain, Oman, Syria and other countries followed.
The Khomeini movement focused on two issues: the first was the Palestinian cause, the primary national religious cause for the Arabs. Khomeini's followers sought to adopt this cause in order to gain influence among nationalist Arabs. The second issue was Shiism, and the governing religious political principle of welayat el-faqih (government of the jurisprudent – the system of governance adopted by the Islamic Republic of Iran).
With the ascendance of the leadership of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the emergence of Iranian nuclear ambitions, Iran's desire to penetrate deep into the Sunni Arab-Islamic sphere increased and the tools to achieve this desire were also further developed. The circumstances of the Arab Spring, that rapidly followed the destruction of the Green Movement in Iran, were highly in favor of Teheran. Iran has been able in recent years to advance militarily and politically in several countries, coming to establish partial control in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Iran invests heavily in media. Part of this media is in Arabic and targets Arab audiences. Productions such as the ‘Prophet Yusuf’ series of 2008, written and directed by Farajollah Salahshoor, which depicted the Islamic account of Joseph, were targeted at Arab audiences. Their success stirred concern that Iran might succeed in gaining influence among the Arabs. The budget Iran spends on films and series with a historical and sectarian religious background is considerable. It is accompanied by the development of Iranian cultural centers in Arab countries, which are mostly funded by institutions directly linked to the Supreme Leader, Khamenei.
Iran's cultural centers, which are called cultural advisories, conduct free Farsi language courses and promote Iranian culture as well as Shiite principles and rituals.
The opening of Farsi language and literature departments in Damascus University, Baath University in Homs, and Tishreen University in Latakia has played a complementary role to the cultural advisories.
Since Bashar Assad ascended to power in 2000, Iranian sectarian and cultural influence in Syria has been on the increase. Damascus and in particular the shrine of As-Sayyda Zainab have become places of attraction for Shiites, and centers for spreading Shi'ism. Iran has in recent years also sought to move beyond Damascus, Homs, Latakia and Aleppo, and to enter such areas as Deir Ezzor, which is characterized by strong tribal influence and an entirely Sunni Arab society.
The Iranian penetration in Damascus and the Syrian coast was based on the presence of the shrines of Sayyida Ruqaya and Sayyida Zainab in Damascus and the presence of a large Alawi population. The Iranian efforts at penetration into a Sunni Arab tribal region such as Deir Ezzor appears contradictory to this sectarian logic, and seems to be motivated by purely strategic and military considerations.
Iran in a Sunni Sea
Despite the un-promising terrain, Iran is making efforts to penetrate the depth of Deir Ezzor, carrying out energetic proselytizing activity among the Arab Sunni society there. This is despite the fact that many inhabitants of this area are committed to a conservative, Sunni lifestyle and their children are immigrants in the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia.
Iran has established Shiite militias from among members of tribes, tempting them with financial rewards. These have appeal, as many people in this area suffer very difficult living conditions. Iran has opened cultural centers, and established scout teams and religious centers, all in an effort to ‘breach the wall’ of the Sunni Arab tribal population.
Al-Mayadeen and al-Bukamal are controlled by Iran.
If doctrinal integration is difficult, it is the geopolitical importance of Deir Ezzor which is Iran’s major motivation for prioritizing the governorate with all possible means despite the inherent difficulties of penetrating the area.
Deir Ezzor is a link point between Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut, i.e - the Shia crescent, so Iran is adopting a long term strategy toward this area.
Iran has fulfilled a number of tactical goals. Deir Ezzor today constitutes a route for the smuggling of weapons from Tehran to Beirut. Iran continues to smuggle weapons despite Israeli airstrikes. Iran intends to establish a permanent foothold in Deir Ezzor. The effort to develop religious loyalty among the population is a part of this.
Iranian Advances West of the Euphrates
Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime share control of the area immediately west of the Euphrates River in Syria. Russia is not concerned with the societal depth and penetration of Deir Ezzor. Its goals are purely military and economic. Assad’s forces, meanwhile, are weak and only seek to preserve control of lands here and there.
Influence operations are the preserve of the Iranians. This is a role which Iran knows well. Iran now possesses political, military, and doctrinal influence in the country. Al-Mayadeen and al-Bukamal are controlled by Iran. The names of the streets have been changed, and it is possible to witness a (still limited) change in the sectarian composition of the area. Residents remaining in the area have begun to accept the Iranians’ presence. This acceptance is combined with fear of the Iranians who fight with Assad or on behalf of him.
Iran’s determination to establish and consolidate and complete the ‘Shia Crescent’ is the reason for this strategy in Deir Ezzor. This strategy explains its ‘carrot and stick’ policies in Deir Ezzor. On one hand, Iran tempts residents with aid from charities and with activities for children; on the other hand, it also adopts coercive activities toward the residents - forcing owners to sell them real estate at low prices as long as the residents oppose the Assad regime. Iran also supports the militias with money and power.
Some observers see Iran’s project in Deir Ezzor as a losing project, considering that Iran cannot make real headway in a Sunni-tribal environment and impose Shiism even if financial and other temptations are presented, because Sunni tribesmen will align and fight with Iran only in return for material inducements. In this view, all manifestations of Shiism are therefore superficial and will disappear with any change in the international policies about Syria resulting in the expulsion of external powers, including Iran, - whose presence is rejected also by Israel and other regional and international powers.
Deir Ezzor is one of the first areas that revolted against Assad and widespread local sentiment considers Iran a partner in the slaughter of Syrians. The events of the Syrian Revolution have left deep marks, with many families from Deir Ezzor waiting for the chance to materially and morally take revenge against the Assad regime - and its ally Iran. Given this, it is not that easy for Iran to maneuver within the society of Deir Ezzor.
Nevertheless, the Iranian project is continuing and has made some progress in infiltrating the area as long as the material tools and the political and military cover are available. But Iranian soft power as a strategy in Syria and in particular in Deir Ezzor would be worth nothing in the absence of a strong military-political presence to support the regime. Syria, it should be remembered, is not Iraq - and Deir Ezzor, in particular, is not al-Najaf.