The Youth Sports Club, once considered one of the most prominent soccer clubs in Deir Ezzor city in eastern Syria, now marks the beginning of Iran’s cultural penetration project in Syria. It transformed the building that was previously dedicated to training the soccer team into a cultural center employing a number of Arabic-speaking Iranians.
Deir Ezzor, which has been destroyed by years of war and siege by the Islamic State (ISIS), is still recovering; despite the Syrian government recovering most of the province a year ago. The city looks as though it belongs in the 1900s; due to the massive amount of damage seen in the buildings and streets—except the building of the Youth Sports Club which stands apart.
Observers believe that Tehran is working to change its methodology in Syria by using soft power instead of military force. Its goal is to guarantee its presence and reap the rewards of several years of support to the Syrian regime.
The secretary of the opposition Syrian National Coalition’s political committee, Riyad al-Hasan, said in a statement to SyriaSource, “The United States’ pressure on Tehran to leave Syria has made it search for another way to ensure its occupation of Syria, after its military presence was threatened.” He added, “It found a new way to achieve its goals via cultural penetration.”
The Iranian Cultural Center opens its doors at the Youth Sports Club every day but Friday from 8:00 in the morning until 3:30 in the afternoon. It offers grants to study in Iranian universities to students who have recently received their high school diploma, as well as free courses to learn Farsi.
According to Mutazz al-Shatir, one of the residents of Deir Ezzor, the educational grants that the Center offers are of two types. The first is a full scholarship given to students with superior scores that covers education costs, residence, and a monthly stipend until graduation. The second is given to less advanced students and includes the education costs and residence only.
Activists share images of pictures posted on walls of the city that explain these grants’ application requirements. The application must include a student’s personal picture, a picture of his ID card, a transcript with his high school graduation and scores, a picture of his passport, and letters from three teachers confirming his good behavior.
Students are showing an interest in registering with the Iranian Cultural Center because of their families’ desire to receive a better education and enter various programs of study that are not available in their city. This comes after the main campus of Furat University—the only public university in the city—and its building facilities were destroyed in the war. Additionally, many experienced teachers fled from the city.
The Iranian activity taking place now in Deir Ezzor and the rest of Syria’s provinces are executed in coordination with the Syrian regime, and are in line with a shared agenda, according to a member of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Yasir al-Farhan, who spoke to SyriaSource.
Further demonstrating this cooperation, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed to open branches of the Iranian religious Azad University in Syrian cities such as Latakia and Homs, according Ali Akbar Velayati, the president of university’s board of founders and trustees. On January 16, 2018, Velayati said, according to the Iranian Fars News Agency, that he had proposed the opening of branches of Azad University in various Syrian cities to Assad and he approved the proposal. The two parties signed an agreement in April 2016 to exchange grants annually between the two countries. Iran would provide 200 scholarships annually, in exchange for Syria providing sixty scholarships.
Khalid al-Matar, a Deir Ezzor resident, explained that the Iranian Cultural Center in Deir Ezzor recently announced that it was offering courses to learn Farsi. He pointed out that there are special courses for children starting as young as eight years old, in addition to those who want to study in Iranian universities. Iran also recently opened three schools in Abu Kamal city and one school in al-Mayadin in Deir Ezzor eastern countryside near the Iraqi border. The schools include Iranian teachers and have enrolled 250 children between the ages of eight and fifteen. Each child gets ten thousand Syrian pounds (about 24 USD) as a monthly stipend.
Riyad al-Hasan, secretary of the opposition Syrian National Coalition’s political committee, believes that Iran is trying to “impose its ideological, sectarian culture,” adding that, it is “attempting to brainwash the young and vulnerable by influencing their way of thinking, and ultimately working towards recruiting them to be fighters in the future.” He called on the international community and human rights organizations to “halt Iranian activity in Syria that has taken advantage of the difficult living situations in the cities and villages of Deir Ezzor countryside, after years of suffering under the Assad regime and brutality of ISIS.”
Building Husayniyat and Spreading the Shia Sect
Spreading the Shia doctrine is one of the most important initiatives that Iran focuses on in order to secure its presence in Syria. It has worked to build husayniyyat (singular: husaniyya), which are places of worship particular to Shia Muslims. A human rights activist documenting violations in the area in Deir Ezzor, who chose to remain anonymous, explained that in Hatla village in the eastern countryside, husayniyyat a
Iran is focusing on Deir Ezzor eastern countryside because it touches the areas Iran controls in Iraq. This comes at the same that Iran-backed Kata’ib Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, which operates under the banner of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), has undertaken the long-term task of securing the border with Syria. The militant group’s leader, Qays al-Khazali, said, “As long as Syria is unstable, the presence of the PMF along the border is necessary.” This means that Iran may intend to strengthen its influence from Tehran to Beirut through Iraq and Syria.
Similarly, there are some reports of Iranians efforts to convince some of the tribes to embrace the Shia faith. They push a narrative based on the premise that “most of the Deir Ezzor tribes are an extension of the tribes in Iraq, which follow the Shia sect.”
Providing for Residents’ Needs
The residents of Deir Ezzor used to view Iranians with suspicion, especially after hearing of sectarian Shia militias targeting Sunnis in Iraq, but now the situation has changed. The presence of Iranian militants in Deir Ezzor is no longer met with disapproval. This changed perception is due to the services and aid that the Iranian militias offer in the area.
Civilians live in catastrophic conditions after years of oppression by jihadist groups and extensive bombing by various actors in the conflict. The Iranian militias have spent significant amounts of money to provide food and medical aid to the local residents in cities and villages. They have also distributed sums of money to the families in some areas.
This cultural penetration is accompanied by the Iranian militias instigating demographic change in Syria. Euphrates Media Network, an that provides news on Syria’s eastern provinces, claimed that the seized nearly fifty vacant homes in al-Mayadin, in addition to dozens of other homes in the neighborhoods al-Jam’iyyat al-Sakaniyya and al-Masakin and on al-Ma’ry Street in Albu Kamal, which lies near the Iraqi border. The network called attention to how the fighters in these militias brought their dependents from Iraq to live in these homes. It estimates their numbers to be around 300 individuals between women and children. This is likely part of a long-term plan to remain in Syria.
The activist Muhammad al-’Amary from al-Mayadin city claimed that the city’s residents witnessed large civilian transport vehicles, in addition to military vehicles with Iranian militias as protection. They brought families to the city center and then took them to the homes that had been confiscated. Iran is pursuing this resettlement plan in the middle of an area that is purely Arab and Sunni and that is characterized by tribalism; the most prominent of which are al-Baqqara, al-Bu Siraya, and al-Shi’aytat tribes. This targeted strategy could inflame tensions in the area.
Iran is trying to embed itself in Syria through these plans to stamp its cultural and social influence on the Syrian society—by maintaining its civilian presence after the conflict ends. Securing its presence in Syria also guarantees a stronghold for its strategic interest of connecting with its ally Hezbollah through Syria and Iraq. Its continued presence will also help it push back against international pressure and the sanctions imposed on it. However, these plans also bear dangerous consequences: the demographic change that accompanies Iran’s actions could produce sectarian tensions between the original residents and the Shia residents who have been resettled there. In the end, this will contribute to the lack of stability in region.
Ghaith al-Ahmad works as a journalist for The New Arab. He previously worked as a media coordinator for the Syrian Red Crescent in Deir Ezzor.