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Religion as a Soft Power Tool: Iran’s Export of Twelver Shia Islam to Syria

As part of its efforts to consolidate an ‘axis of resistance’ across the Middle East, Iran has been working to settle populations in Syria who subscribe to the Twelver branch of Shia Islam.

United by faith: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visits the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque in Damascus, a major pilgrimage destination for Twelver Shia Muslims, in May 2023

A Syrian opposition outlet recently broadcast an online video of young men desecrating the grave of Mu’awiya, the first Umayyad Caliph, in the Old City of Damascus. Shia tourists from Iraq and Iran have long visited Damascus to pray at its shrines, and Sunni–Shia point-scoring is nothing new. Yet such scenes hint at a more contemporary phenomenon: Iran has been attempting to turn elements of Syrian society towards its branch of Shia Islam.

Iran’s proxy networks across the Middle East have received ample coverage since the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas. Reports have tended to focus on Iran’s network of military proxies, yet less has been made of Iran’s role in engineering civil society. The export of Shia Islam, specifically the ‘Twelver’ branch, is one of the main conduits through which Iran has consolidated its ‘axis of resistance’ in the Middle East.

It is worth noting that the ‘axis’ transcends the bounds of Shia Islam; Iran’s allies include both the Alawite Assad regime and the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood (of which Hamas is an offshoot), and it often assumes stances with the whole Islamic world in mind, particularly in its approach to Israel and the US. Shia support for Iran across the Islamic world is not unanimous either, as the rift between Iran and the influential Iraqi cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr demonstrated.

In Syria, however, Iran’s export of Twelver Shia Islam aims to spread Iranian influence in a very direct way: working to settle Shia populations in that country who are supportive of Iran. This goes a step further than its proselytisation efforts in Lebanon, where it worked to politicise a pre-existing Twelver Shia community.

Iran’s ‘35th Province’

Syria’s confessional map is diverse, with a Sunni majority, as well as minority communities of Christians, Alawites, Druzes and Ismaili Shia. Alawites, together with Druzes and Ismailis, constitute approximately 13% of the population, and they enjoy certain privileges in a system beholden to the Alawite Assad family. Both Alawites and the Twelver Shia differ from Sunnis in their belief that Imam Ali and the 11 imams after him were the rightful leaders of the Muslim community after the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Alawite doctrine, however, differs notably from Twelver Shia Islam in its celebration of Christmas, interpretation of Islamic pillars such as sawm (fasting) and zakat (almsgiving), and belief in tanasukh (the transmigration of the soul after death).

The social breakdown and demographic displacement of wartime Syria have cleared the way for Iran to step up its efforts at ‘Shiification’

Beyond the few confessional similarities, Iran has remained one of the Assads’ closest allies since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, providing them with military support and a long credit line which has helped keep Bashar Al-Assad afloat through the Syrian Civil War. In May of last year, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Damascus for the first time since 2011, in a delegation which included Iran’s ministers of oil, defence, foreign affairs and telecommunications, declaring: ‘Iran will always stand by Syria’.

The social breakdown and demographic displacement of wartime Syria have cleared the way for Iran to step up its efforts at ‘Shiification’, which predates the Civil War. These include the establishment of at least 70 Shia religious and cultural centres, and repopulation. The first notable example of this occurred in 2017, when Iran, through its allies in Hezbollah, encouraged the transfer of Syrian Shia from the villages of Kefraya and Fua in Idlib province to formerly Sunni areas near Damascus.

Iran’s tipping of Syria’s confessional balance has, moreover, been facilitated by the Assad regime. In 2014, Bashar Al-Assad passed legislation implementing the teaching of Twelver Shia Islam in Syrian public schools, while in 2018, a presidential decree established a jurisprudential council with a quota for Twelver Shia, paving the way for foreign clerics to occupy senior religious positions. Visa rules for visitors from Iraq and Iran have also been relaxed, causing a precipitous rise in the numbers coming to Damascus. This is unprecedented, in a country without a previous Twelver Shia minority of any significant size.

In 2018, and perhaps most importantly, Assad passed the 'Urban Renewal Law', which enabled the state to nationalise unclaimed properties, thereby accelerating foreign acquisition of property left vacant in the wake of intense fighting. This has represented a green light for Iran-affiliated actors to acquire property for Shia from Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan, in a process which has centred on locales of religious significance. These include areas of Deir-ez-Zor governorate, where the 657 Battle of Siffin is believed to have taken place, and outer Damascus, where the tomb of Sayyida Zaynab bint Ali and the Bab Al-Saghir Cemetery are located. The former is where Mu’awiya defeated Imam Ali and the Sunni–Shia schism emerged, and the latter are important Shia holy places.

Building on Familiar Territory

Iran’s incursion into Syria’s civil society is analogous to its missionary activity in neighbouring Lebanon, a decades-long process which began during the Lebanese Civil War. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) entered Shia districts of the Bekaa Valley, after Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon in 1982. The IRGC were followed by the engineers and planners of the Jihad-e-Sazandegi, which funded the Jihad al-Banaa. (Both terms, in Persian and Arabic respectively, mean ‘Construction Jihad’.) The Construction Jihad oversaw the building of infrastructure, medical facilities and schools, as well as providing vocational training and agricultural assistance, in one of Lebanon’s most deprived regions.

The Construction Jihad had limited economic utility for Tehran, but it provided the girders for a long-term alliance with the Amal Movement, and later Hezbollah. Shia proselytisation provided the interior: water tanks supplied by the Construction Jihad contained slogans about the Shia imams, while participants in agricultural training workshops were routinely sent to both model farms and Shia shrines in Iran, to deepen their connection to Shia Islam.

A firm Shia foothold in Syria would further bolster Iran’s ‘axis of resistance’, opening a ‘Shia crescent’ from Bahrain, through Iran, Iraq and Syria, to the Bekaa Valley and the Mediterranean

The result was the creation of an Iranian stronghold in the Hezbollah-controlled Shia districts of southern Beirut and the Bekaa Valley, which now forms an essential component of Iran’s ‘axis of resistance’ against Israel and the West.

In Lebanon, and in Iraq too, Iran had the advantage of a large, extant Shia population over which it could exert soft power. In Syria it has had to innovate, favouring repopulation of formerly Sunni areas with Shia from Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan, and the gradual conversion of the Sunni majority. Conversion has often occurred discreetly, vested on the prospect of better treatment from Iran-backed militias. As in Lebanon, IRGC-supervised Construction Jihad, in the form of building infrastructure as well as health and educational facilities in underserved areas, has provided a firm foundation upon which to proselytise.

Iran’s Endgame

Iran’s attempts to alter Syria’s confessional balance show little sign of relenting, and the changes which it has already wrought to Syrian civil society are likely to endure, given the power of Iran-affiliated militias in Syria and the leverage granted to Shia religious organisations by the Assad regime.

The Sunni-majority populations of Deir-ez-Zor and Damascus governorates have declined notably since the outbreak of war in 2011. Even if reconstruction eventually restores some quality of life in Syria – whenever that may be – Sunnis will feel less incentive to move back to areas that more closely resemble an Iranian province than the home that they left behind.

Crucially, after decades of proxy-building and missionary work in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, a firm Shia foothold in Syria would further bolster Iran’s ‘axis of resistance’, opening a ‘Shia crescent’ from Bahrain, through Iran, Iraq and Syria, to the Bekaa Valley and the Mediterranean. Through this, Iran will continue to use hard power, in the form of its militia proxies, and soft power, in the form of influence over sympathetic regimes and subdued civil societies, to manoeuvre unrestrained.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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