Iran’s soft power project in Syria, targeting of youth in Deir Ezzor
By OMAR ABU LAYLA
Since emerging as a regional power and embracing the notion of exporting the revolution adopted by the Iranian Islamic Republic led by al-Khomeini, Iran has been trying to create parallel powers in different countries. Iran has succeeded in penetrating Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria on the military and political levels. Teheran backs different militias in these countries; however, Iran tries also to adopt soft power strategies such as proselytizing and promoting Shiism among traditionally non-Shiite societies.
This strategy faces significant challenges in Syria, as Iran cannot rely on the sectarian popular support of the Shiite Arabs as in Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon. Nevertheless it also has some potential in Syria, where the regime has offered an opening for Iranian activity, leaving it free to engage in Shia Dawa activities and thus promote its ‘soft power’ strategy.
In Deir Ezzor, the largest city in eastern Syria, Iran tries to exploit economic hardship in order to attract local society starting with three categories: tribal dignitaries, by offering money, young men by providing recruitment in return for a monthly salary, and children by organizing entertainment tours and offering money to the children’s families in return for their embracing Shiism and learning such practices as Latmiyat - Shiite religious song
In this article, we try to compare Iran’s soft power strategy to its military approach, represented by Iranian militias and weapons in Syria and other countries. Purely Military Strategy Insufficient
Since the start of the Iranian military intervention in Syria in 2013 and Tehran’s sending its militias to Syria, Iran has been trying to build military bases as part of its cohesive military strategy which aims at carving out an area of contiguous Iranian control from Teheran to Beirut, while bypassing Baghdad and Damascus. However, a military strategy is not enough on its own, particularly as Israel is engaged in an active campaign to disrupt and roll back this effort. Given this, Iran is also engaging in a parallel strategy to create a reservoir of human support, that will serve as a base for political aspirations in Syria in the future. Israel focuses in its efforts mainly in the south, and as a result Iran has been building its bases and strengthening its presence in the east. But Israel is trying to strike it in the east as well, to disrupt its efforts to develop its bases there, as these bases could be used as major arms depots that could be used to threaten Israel when moved to the south.
The challenge of lack of large Shia population
Iran has a direct military and political presence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Iran is able to move its proxies, implement its agenda, and terrorize its enemies in these countries, or to target foreign forces, such as the Americans in Iraq as a response to Qasem Suleimani’s killing. It can also carry out acts such as the targeting of Aramco in Saudi Arabia.
Iran’s power and penetration differs from one area to another, but unlike in eastern Syria, Iran's influence in Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon largely depends on its Shiite base. Iran identifies and recruits figures who are loyal on the doctrinal and political levels. These figures then implement Iran’s political agenda and ensure Iran’s upper hand in the political decision making in these countries.
The situation in Syria is very different. Iran enjoys political and military leverage in Syria, but it lacks the element of a large, doctrinally loyal population. The Shia in Syria are a very small minority. Although Iran has been trying for years to revive sectarianism in Syria, Tehran has not succeeded yet, especially in areas like Deir Ezzor, where 99% of the residents are Sunni Arabs. Many of the latter perceive Iran as an occupying power, allied with a criminal regime which is engaged in killing its own people. Iran is nevertheless seeking to use soft power methods to create a doctrinal base in this area. Iran appears to be attempting to sow seeds, with the intention of harvesting at a later date.
Iran’s soft power strategy
Since the Assad regime and its Iranian allies’ gained control over Deir Ezzor, Iran began to work in a clear manner: targeting young men and children, while constantly exploiting poor economic conditions. Naturally, deteriorated economic conditions force people to search for ways to make a living. As a result, some young men are drawn to try to join Iranian militias so as to earn permanent salaries. Each local fighter of the Iranian militias receives $150 per month.
These young men would then come across people promoting Shiism and earning a lot of money or privileges, and be tempted to follow a similar path. Even if they do not themselves embrace Shiism, the young men would at least henceforth be familiar with Shiism and will not deny or oppose others’ embracing it. Thus, they would be more likely to become silent and acquiescent to doctrinal, ideological and even demographic change.
Iran tries also to attract children into Iranian cultural centers and teach them Iranian culture and Shiism in return for competitions and money. This money is a grant aimed at attracting children, and is given to their parents. The money is not a permanent salary. Rather, the centers give it in the form of one-off grants.
As an example of this type of activity, Iran organized recently a training course in the Kashafet al-Mahdi center, intended to teach children the art of Shiite chanting in the city of al-Mayadeen. This art is called ‘al-Latmiyat’ in the Shiite doctrinal culture. After the end of the course, each child would be given 250,000 Syrian pounds. This is a tempting sum for many families nowadays in Syria.
Iran tries to make children embrace Shiism at a young age. This strategy may be slow-moving, but it may well bear fruit one day, especially if Iran continues to consistently pursue it, as it appears to be doing.
Iran tries also to attract children into Iranian cultural centers and teach them Iranian culture and Shiism in return for money.
Opportunities and challenges
Iran’s most important advantage in its soft power project is that the Assad regime has allowed it a free hand in Al-Mayadeen, Al-Bukamal and other areas of Deir Ezzor. It has established fighting militias, recruited tribesmen, gained support of some tribal sheikhs, (sometimes via threats, as they wanted to be permitted to remain in their areas.) It has established cultural centers, scouts groups, language courses, recreational trips and competitions for the young. It has supported people who converted to its brand of Shiism by providing humanitarian assistance and relief materials for gaining the support of the local community. All of these seem strategically convincing and likely to bear fruit only if they are part of a long term project and commitment kept up over a long period. This is not guaranteed, given possible changes in Syria, and especially that other powers do not necessarily agree regarding the construction of a strong Iranian influence in Syria.
The fact that Deir Ezzor is mostly inhabited by the Sunni Arab component also constitutes a major challenge. There is a psychological and religious barrier to Iranian sectarian and political expansion in Deir e Zur.
Absent in Syria: A perception of Shi’ite victimhood
Shiite propaganda in Iran's areas of activity often depends on traditional Shi’ite perceptions of victimhood – the sense that the Shiites are oppressed, and have been killed and exiled only because they are Shiites living among a Sunni majority. This claim is aided by the culture of the veneration of Hussein, and the desire to remember and reclaim history. This helps Iran’s efforts to gain sympathy and bind populations ideologically to Iran. But in Syria, since Shi'ism is new and there is no Shiite tradition of victimhood, it has been hard to build this claim out of nothing, and to work with the same strategies adopted in other areas. Iran has focused, as mentioned above, on promotion of Latmiyat, as seen in the occasion of Ashura in Damascus and Deir Ezzor. This is meant to gain sympathy depending on Muslim veneration for Ahl al-Bayt (the Prophet Mohammed’s family).
Iran also resorts to the construction of shrines using Shiite sectarian symbolism, whether by assumption, historic basis or mere similarity in names, such as the Ali well in Deir Ezzor. These shrines are considered to be suitable places to evoke emotions and link them with the general Shiite situation based on historical oppression as compensation for the missing contemporary oppression. In promoting their doctrine, the Shiites have traditionally depended on arousing the emotion of others about the love of the “relatives of the Prophet”, that is, his family, namely Ali bin Abi Talib, and his two sons, Al-Hassan and Al-Hussein.
It does not seem that Iran will cease this activity, as it continues to pursue its vision of expansion, despite the sanctions and challenges it is facing. It is constantly seeking to develop its methods, and to penetrate the Arab countries culturally.
An interesting additional recent example is the Iranian made TV series ‘Yusuf al-Siddiq”. This series’ great success led to some Arab countries, especially in the Gulf, fearing that Iran's cultural influence on the Arabs would increase. The Saudi MBC network, at a very high cost, has been working by way of response on producing a series about Omar bin al-Khattab for two years, and although many Sunni scholars forbid the representation and embodiment of the personalities of the Companions (of the Prophet) – in line with traditional Sunni norms, Saudi Arabia found the completion of this work and others necessary to block the way to Iranian cultural influence.
But Iran’s penetration of Syria depends ultimately on the political reality in the coming period. If its presence is accepted as part of a political solution, it will hold on to its gains, and continue to pursue this strategy in line with developments. The issue of its penetration in Syria remains dependent on the political reality in the coming stage. If Iran is accepted as part of the political solution, it will certainly seek to preserve and advance its gains from "soft power" as its way of strategic survival in Syria, by seeking to expand the base of its acceptance culturally and emotionally among the people of the region. Its steps are a little slow, but it is counting on this, and will try to preserve this project even if Assad cannot survive in the next stage after international agreements on the need for a political transition.
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.