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Iranian settlement in Syria

Fayez Sara

Published: Updated:

The title of the article will appear provocative to some readers and pique their interest, as the wording is similar to when we refer to Israeli settlements in Palestine, whether it be in the Golan Heights or the West Bank. But this interest will soon vanish upon examining the reality of Iranian policies and their results in Syria, some of which can be observed in other Arab countries, particularly those countries whose people are experiencing hardship, such as Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, which pushes Iran with its armed tools to gain complete control over them.

In order to avoid this provocation and mitigate it, and for the sake of greater clarification, we can go back to the idea of Israeli settlement, whose victims were the Palestinians, followed by other Arabs, including Syrians from the Golan Heights, Jordanians from the West Bank, and Egyptians who lived in the Gaza Strip before the Israeli occupation in 1967.

Although the Israeli settlement project started with the first European immigrants to Palestine, it included and employed other Jews in its service. They came from different countries, including Jews from Palestine and other Arab and Islamic countries, and they joined forces with those preceding them under the political, social, cultural, religious and military settlement frameworks.

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This was done under a religious banner whose foundation is a national homeland for the Jews in the Promised Land, and a political banner based on the establishment of a racist colonial entity that owns the land and expels its inhabitants to replace them with foreigners, is hostile to its regional surroundings, and is linked to strategic interests with superpowers.

The features of the Israeli settlement above serve as an introduction to Iran’s policy in Syria, which began in the late seventies and has continued to escalate in the last twenty years after Bashar Al Assad came to power, and his regime launched a full-out war on the Syrians starting in March 2011. This opened the door to the Iranian settlement project to complete what Assad had started. The Iranians sent military and security experts as well as technical experts to the Assad regime, then sent militias affiliated religiously and politically with Iran and working under its command, to participate in Assad’s war against the Syrians.

In this Feb. 14, 2021 file photo, Druse supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad wave Syrian flags during a rally close to the border demanding the return of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967, in Majdal Shams, Golan Heights. (AP)
In this Feb. 14, 2021 file photo, Druse supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad wave Syrian flags during a rally close to the border demanding the return of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967, in Majdal Shams, Golan Heights. (AP)

They organized in camps and gatherings, similar to the first Jewish settlements, and fought battles alone or with the participation of the regime forces, killing many residents of cities and villages, fully or partially displacing others, occupying their homes and seizing their lands and properties, and bringing their own families and those close to them to settle in the cities and villages they had seized.

This happened in the city of Sayyida Zainab and its outskirts south of Damascus, in the city of Yabroud and its outskirts in western Qalamoun, and in the city of Al-Qusayr and its outskirts west of Homs. Naturally, the cities controlled by the Iranian militias are closed to the residents expelled from them, and they are forbidden to the movement of Syrians passing through, as the Israeli settlements and their surroundings are for the Palestinians.

And because the capabilities of Iran’s militias that were brought in from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and others are limited, they were unable to secure and protect the Assad regime and restore its control over the country, leading Iran to send in some of its forces from the Revolutionary Guard led by General Qassem Soleimani. These forces also assumed the task of coordinating Iranian efforts and its relations with the various parties involved in the Syrian issue, especially coordinating the movement of Iranian forces and militias with the Assad regime and Russian forces.

However, Iran's military movement and the activity of its militias, and the accompanying expulsion of Syrians and their replacement by foreigners, are only some aspects of the Iranian settlement in Syria. Others include the Shi’ism conversion campaigns, which are run by Iranian sheikhs, military and intelligence officers, and have been rolled out from the east in Deir ez-Zor governorate as far as the coast in Tartus and Lattakia, and from Aleppo in the north towards the center line to Hama, Homs and Damascus towards As-Suwayda in the south.

The Shi’ism conversion campaigns focus on three categories: tribal sheikhs and local influential regime supporters both of whom are "bought", as well as the poor and needy, whose dependence is exploited. Among the recruits to Shi'ism, people are chosen to join Iran’s militias and join the “Syrian Hezbollah,” which emulates the experience of the “Lebanese Hezbollah” and its Iraqi brother.

Iran’s experience in Shi’ism conversion and military recruitment brings us back to what the Israelis did in the seventies and eighties, when they recruited village tribes of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and armed the “South Lebanon Army” led by Saad Haddad and then Antoine Lahad in southern Lebanon.

The danger of Iranian interference in Syria, from one aspect, lies in its radicalization to the point of extremism, and the exercise of extreme physical and verbal violence against those who do not respond to the policy of the iron fist in the velvet glove, qualifying them as terrorists who should be killed and then proceeding to actually kill them. This is accompanied by the construction of Husseiniyas (Shi'ite community and religious centers) and the establishment of training centers. All of this takes place on the land of Syrians, obtained either through expulsion or through paying sums that exceed their original value for ideological and security necessities, decided and imposed by the Iranians. This also reminds us of Israel’s policies in seizing Palestinian lands.

Perhaps we need more space than is available and more time, in order to enumerate the similarities between the Israeli settlement policy and the policy that Iran is pursuing in Syria according to a pattern that is very close to settlement. But a remarkable paradox can be observed, which is that the Iranian settlement has exceeded the Israeli one. Its militias, especially the Lebanese Hezbollah, recruited and trained the children of its victims, especially those who lost their families or were separated from them in the war against the Syrians, and pushed these youth to fight within the party’s forces to kill their families and citizens, and destroy what is left of their country.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, pan-Arab outlet Asharq al-Awsat.

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