October 7, 2015


The Iranian Project: Why Assad Has Turned to Moscow for Help (Christoph Reut, 10/06/15, Der Spiegel)

Using a variety of pathways, both civilian and military, Tehran is currently in the process of establishing itself in Syria. Military means are being employed to strengthen the holdings of the Shiite militia Hezbollah in areas near the border with Lebanon. To serve this goal, the Syrian National Defense Forces were established, troops that exist alongside the regular Syrian army and which includes tens of thousands of fighters who were trained in Iran. Still, the National Defense Forces have begun to disintegrate into local mafia militias and have actually accelerated the loss of state control over those regions.

It is, however, primarily in the civilian sector where significant changes are afoot. Just as in Damascus, Latakia and Jabla, increasing numbers of hosseiniehs -- Shiite religious teaching centers -- are opening. The centers are aimed at converting Sunnis, and even the Alawites, the denomination to which the Assads belong, to "correct" Shiite Islam by way of sermons and stipends. In addition, the government decreed one year ago that state-run religion schools were to teach Shiite material.

All of this is taking place to the consternation of the Alawites, who have begun to voice their displeasure. "They are throwing us back a thousand years. We don't even wear headscarves and we aren't Shiites," Alawites complained on the Jableh News Facebook page. There were also grumblings when a Shiite mosque opened in Latakia and an imam there announced: "We don't need you. We need your children and grandchildren."

In addition, Iranian emissaries, either directly or via middlemen, have been buying land and buildings in Damascus, including almost the entire former Jewish quarter, and trying to settle Shiites from other countries there.

Talib Ibrahim, an Alawite communist from Masyaf who fled to the Netherlands many years ago, summarizes the mood as follows: "Assad wants the Iranians as fighters, but increasingly they are interfering ideologically with domestic affairs. The Russians don't do that."

That's why Assad has now decided to place his fate in the hands of the religiously unproblematic Russia, which last week transferred aircraft and troops to its military base in the northern Syrian town of Latakia and began flying airstrikes. The fight against the Islamic State terror militia served as a pretext for the operation, but the initial air strikes have not targeted the Islamists at all. Rather, they have been flown against areas controlled by Syrian rebels.

It is, however, questionable whether Iranian influence in the country can be reversed. Negotiations in the Syrian city of Zabadani serve to demonstrate just how far the "Iranian project" has advanced. The city northwest of Damascus, which has been surrounded for three years now, is strategically important for the Shiite militia Hezbollah. Held by rebels, Zabadani represents the last significant hurdle standing in the way of Hezbollah's plan to bring the entire Syrian border region surrounding Lebanon under its control. At the beginning of July, Hezbollah began a large-scale offensive against Zabadani. In response, rebels in Idlib laid siege to, and began firing on, the villages Fua and Kafraya, where more than 10,000 members of the Shiite minority live. Tehran then stepped in and began negotiating directly with the Syrian rebels, including the Nusra Front. The leadership in Damascus was not involved in the talks.

A deal was reached that went much further than anything that Assad has ever agreed to with the rebels. But it is explosive. It demonstrates that the Iranians no longer believe in an Assad victory, and it shows that the country's partitioning has begun, including confessional cleansing.

One of the easy measures of someone's understanding of the Middle East has always been whether they think Hezbollah and Iran are in Syria to save the regime.
Posted by at October 7, 2015 3:28 PM

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