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Sunday, May 5, 2013
Iranian Plans to Take Over Syria

Iran’s Plans to Take Over Syria
Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira, May 2, 2013
Jerusalem Issue Briefs Vol. 13, No. 10 5 May 2013
http://jcpa.org/article/irans-plans-to-take-over-syria/

-In mid-April, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah paid a secret visit to
Tehran where he met with the top Iranian officials headed by Supreme Leader
Ali Khamenei and Gen. Qasem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of
the Revolutionary Guard Corps. Suleimani prepared an operational plan named
after him based upon the establishment of a 150,000-man force for Syria, the
majority of whom will come from Iran, Iraq, and a smaller number from
Hizbullah and the Gulf states.

-Suleimani’s involvement was significant. He has been the spearhead of
Iranian military activism in the Middle East. In January 2012, he declared
that the Islamic Republic controlled “one way or another” Iraq and South
Lebanon. Even before recent events in Syria, observers in the Arab world
have been warning for years about growing evidence of “Iranian
expansionism.”

-An important expression of Syria’s centrality in Iranian strategy was
voiced by Mehdi Taaib, who heads Khamenei’s think tank. He recently stated
that “Syria is the 35th district of Iran and it has greater strategic
importance for Iran than Khuzestan [an Arab-populated district inside
Iran].” Significantly, Taaib was drawing a comparison between Syria and a
district that is under full Iranian sovereignty.

-Tehran has had political ambitions with respect to Syria for years and has
indeed invested huge resources in making Syria a Shiite state. The Syrian
regime let Iranian missionaries work freely to strengthen the Shiite faith
in Damascus and the cities of the Alawite coast, as well as the smaller
towns and villages. In both urban and rural parts of Syria, Sunnis and
others who adopted the Shiite faith received privileges and preferential
treatment in the disbursement of Iranian aid money.

-Iran is also recruiting Shiite forces in Iraq for the warfare in Syria.
These are organized in a sister framework of Lebanese Hizbullah. Known as
the League of the Righteous People and Kateeb Hizbullah, its mission is to
defend the Shiite centers in Damascus. It is likely that Tehran will make
every effort to recruit additional Shiite elements from Iraq, the Persian
Gulf, and even from Pakistan.

Iran Cannot Afford to Lose Syria

In mid-April, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah paid a secret visit to
Tehran where he met with the top Iranian officials headed by Supreme Leader
Ali Khamenei and the commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard
Corps, Gen. Qasem Suleimani, who is in charge of Iranian policy in Lebanon
and Syria. The visit was clandestine and no details were divulged on an
official level – except for the exclusive posting on Hizbullah’s official
website of a photograph of Khamenei with Nasrallah beside him in the former’s
private library, with a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini above them.1

Suleimani’s involvement in the meeting with Nasrallah was significant. He
has been the spearhead of Iranian military activism in the Middle East. In
January 2012, he declared that the Islamic Republic controlled “one way or
another” Iraq and South Lebanon.2 He now appeared to be prepared to extend
Iran’s control to all of Syria.

A media source normally hostile to Iran and Hizbullah but which nonetheless
contains accurate information, reported that Iran has formulated an
operational plan for assisting Syria. The plan has been named for Gen.
Suleimani. It includes three elements: 1) the establishment of a popular
sectarian army made up of Shiites and Alawites, to be backed by forces from
Iran, Iraq, Hizbullah, and symbolic contingents from the Persian Gulf. 2)
This force will reach 150,000 fighters. 3) The plan will give preference to
importing forces from Iran, Iraq, and, only afterwards, other Shiite
elements. This regional force will be integrated with the Syrian army.
Suleimani, himself, visited Syria in late February-early March to prepare
the implementation of this plan.3

In the past, senior Iranian officers, like Major General Yahya Rahim-Safavi,
the former commander of the Revolutionary Guards who is an adviser to
Khamenei, have said that Lebanon and Syria gave Iran “strategic depth.”4 Now
it appears that Tehran is taking this a step further, preparing for a “Plan
B” in the event Assad falls.

Nasrallah rarely makes such trips. The last time he went on a visit outside
Lebanon was in February 2010 when he met in Damascus with Syrian President
Bashar Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Nasrallah has taken
great care not to appear in public since the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and
even more so since the assassination of the head of Hizbullah’s military
wing, Imad Mughniyeh, in Damascus in February 2008. Even in Iran itself
Nasrallah maintained total secrecy for fear of becoming an assassination
target there. After the visit, he gave a speech in Lebanon on April 30, but
did not say anything about his visit to Iran. He did remark that Syria “has
real friends” that wouldn’t let it fall, implying that, if necessary, he
would redouble his efforts to defend Iranian interests, which has always
been one of the missions of Hizbullah.

It appears that Hizbullah’s ongoing involvement in Syria, and the extent of
this involvement, formed the main issue on the agenda during Nasrallah’s
visit to Tehran. The more time passes, the more Iran appears to regard Syria
as a lynchpin of its Middle Eastern policy, in general, and of leading the
jihad and the Islamic resistance to Israel, in particular. Hizbullah’s
inclusion in the armed struggle in Syria is intended first and foremost to
serve the Iranian strategy, which has been setting new goals apart from
military assistance to the Syrian regime. Iran already seems to be looking
beyond the regime’s survivability and preparing for a reality where it will
have to operate in Syria even if Assad falls. Even before recent events in
Syria, observers in the Arab world have been warning for years about growing
evidence of “Iranian expansionism.”5

An important expression of Syria’s centrality in Iranian strategy was voiced
by Mehdi Taaib, who heads Khamenei’s think tank. He recently stated that
“Syria is the 35th district of Iran and it has greater strategic importance
for Iran than Khuzestan [an Arab-populated district inside Iran]. By
preserving Syria we will be able to get back Khuzestan, but if we lose Syria
we will not even be able to keep Tehran.”6 Significantly, Taaib was drawing
a comparison between Syria and a district that is under full Iranian
sovereignty. What was also clear from his remarks was that Iran cannot
afford to lose Syria.

Syria as a Shiite State

All in all, then, Iran will have to step up its military involvement in
Syria. Khamenei’s representative in Lebanon will have to take part in
building the new strategy in Syria, acting in tandem with Iran against the
Sunni Islamic groups that threaten Iran’s interests in Syria.

Tehran has had political ambitions with respect to Syria for years and has
indeed invested huge resources in making Syria a Shiite state. The process
began during the rule of Hafez Assad when a far-reaching network was created
of educational, cultural, and religious institutions throughout Syria; it
was further expanded during Bashar’s reign. The aim was to promote the
Shiization of all regions of the Syrian state. The Syrian regime let Iranian
missionaries work freely to strengthen the Shiite faith in Damascus and the
cities of the Alawite coast, as well as the smaller towns and villages.7 A
field study by the European Union in the first half of 2006 found that the
largest percentage of religious conversions to Shiism occurred in areas with
an Alawite majority.8

In both urban and rural parts of Syria, Sunnis and others who adopted the
Shiite faith received privileges and preferential treatment in the
disbursement of Iranian aid money. The heads of the tribes in the Raqqa area
were invited by the Iranian ambassador in Damascus to visit Iran cost-free,
and the Iranians doled out funds to the poor and financial loans to
merchants who were never required to pay them back..9 The dimensions of the
Iranian investment in Raqqa, which included elegant public buildings,
mosques, and Husayniyys (a Shiite religious institute), were recently
revealed by Sunni rebels who took over the remote town and destroyed,
plundered, and removed all signs of the Iranian and Shiite presence there.10

As of 2009 there were over 500 Husayniyys in Syria undergoing Iranian
renovation work. In Damascus itself the Iranians invested huge sums to
control the Shiite holy places including the tomb of Sayyida Zaynab, the
shrine of Sayyida Ruqayya, and the shrine of Sayyida Sukayna. These sites
attract Iranian tourism, which grew from 27,000 visitors in 1978 to 200,000
in 2003.

Iran also operates a cultural center in Damascus that it considers one of
its most important and successful. This center publishes works in Arabic,
holds biweekly cultural events, and conducts seminars and conferences aimed
at enhancing the Iranian cultural influence in the country. The Iranian
cultural center is also responsible for the propagation and study of the
Persian language in Syrian universities, including providing teachers of
Persian.11

Iran’s Sponsorship of Shiite Forces in Syria

At present, bloody battles are being waged over the centers of Iranian
influence in Syria, most of all the mausoleum of Sayyida Zaynab – sister of
the Imam Husayn – who in 680 carried his severed head to Damascus after the
massacre at Karbala. In Iranian historiography, the great victory over the
Sunnis is marked in Damascus in the form of a Shiite renaissance in the
capital of the hated Umayyad Empire. The Sunnis, however, are now
threatening these Iranian achievements. Hizbullah has been recruited to the
cause, with hundreds of its fighters coming to Syria from Lebanon. These
fighters try to downplay their Hizbullah affiliation and instead identify
themselves as the Abu El Fadl Alabbas Brigade, named after the half-brother
of the Imam Husayn.

Iran is also recruiting Shiite forces in Iraq for the warfare in Syria.
These are organized in a sister framework of Lebanese Hizbullah. Known as
the League of the Righteous People and Kateeb Hizbullah, its mission is to
defend the Shiite centers in Damascus.12 Hizbullah fighters are also
operating in other areas, some of them beyond the Lebanese border in the
Shiite villages in Syrian territory on the way to Homs, thereby creating a
sort of territorial continuity for ongoing Alawite control under Iranian
influence. This continuity is strategically important to Iran since it links
Lebanon and Damascus to the Alawite coast.13 Iran aims to have a network of
militias in place inside Syria to protect its vital interests, regardless of
what happens to Assad.14

The war in Syria persists with no decisive outcome on the horizon. Hizbullah’s
battle losses are growing. Subhi Tufayli, the first head of Hizbullah who
was dismissed from its leadership by Iran at the start of the 1990s, has
been one of the prominent critics of Hizbullah’s involvement in Syria.
Tufayli claimed that 138 Hizbullah fighters had been killed there along with
scores of wounded who were brought to hospitals in Lebanon.15 Ceremonies for
burial of the dead are frequently held clandestinely, sometimes at night, so
as to avoid anger and resentment. These casualties, however, did not
disappear from sight, and the families have raised harsh questions about
such unnecessary sacrifice that is not in the sacred framework of jihad
against Israel, which is Hizbullah’s raison d’être.

Tufayli, for his part, asserted that Hizbullah fighters who are killed in
battle in Syria “are not martyrs” and “will go to hell.” Syria, he remarked,
“is not Karbala” and the Hizbullah men in Syria “are not fighters of the
Imam [Husayn]. The oppressed and innocent Syrian people is Karbala and the
members of the Syrian people are the children of Husayn and Zaynab.” Tufayli
went on to say that he “lauds the fathers and mothers who prevent their
children from going to Syria and says to them that God’s blessing is with
them.” Tufayli further pointed out that, legally speaking, no fatwa has been
issued that permits Hizbullah’s participation in the war in Syria. He said
he had appealed to the supreme religious authority – the sources of
emulation (Maraji Taqlid) in Najaf and in Lebanon – not to issue such a
fatwa.16

In the Lebanese Shiite community, Tufayli is not alone in leveling severe
criticism at Hizbullah’s role as an arm of Iran in Syria. Voices within
Hizbullah itself are increasingly casting doubt on the wisdom of involving
the movement on Bashar Assad’s side. Others refuse to go and fight in Syria,
and there have already been desertions from Hizbullah’s ranks. So far,
though, it does not appear that all this is deterring Hizbullah from
persisting. At the end of the day, Hizbullah is not a Lebanese national
movement but a creation of Iran and subject to its exclusive authority.
Nasrallah was summoned to Tehran so as to encourage him and order him to
continue as a faithful and obedient soldier of Velayt-e Faqih (literally:
the Rule of the Jurisprudent, referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei).

It is likely that Tehran will make every effort to recruit additional Shiite
elements from Iraq, the Persian Gulf, and even from Pakistan. For the
Islamic Republic, this is a war of survival against a radical Sunni uprising
that views Iran and the Shiites as infidels to be annihilated. This is the
real war being waged today, and it is within Islam. From Iran’s standpoint,
if the extreme Sunnis of the al-Qaeda persuasion are not defeated in Syria,
they will assert themselves in Iraq and threaten to take over the Persian
Gulf, posing a real danger to Iran’s regional hegemony. Khamenei does not
intend to give in. Hizbullah’s readiness to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with
Iran against the radical Sunnis could shatter the delicate internal order
upon which the Lebanese state is based and bring about a Hizbullah take-over
of Lebanon in its entirety.

* * *

Notes

1. On the picture and its significance, see Ali al-Amin, Al-Balad, April 23,
2013, http://www.alahednews.com.lb/essaydetails.php?eid=74383&cid=76.
2. “Chief of Iran’s Quds Force Claims Iraq, South Lebanon under His Control,
Al Arabiya News, January 20, 2012,
http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2012/01/20/189447.html.
3. A-Shiraa, March 15, 2013.
4. Nevvine Abdel Monem Mossad, “Implication of Iran Accepting Military Role
in Syria, Lebanon,” The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research,
October 7, 2012.
5. Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed, “Iran and Its Expansionist Tendencies,” Arab
News, February 6, 2013,
http://www.arabnews.com/iran-and-its-expansionist-tendencies; “US Embassy
Cables: Omani Official Wary of Iranian Expansionism,” The Guardian, November
28, 2010,
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/us-embassy-cables-documents/165127.
6. Ali-al-Amin, Al-Balad, February 17, 2013.
7. On the Shiization of Syria, see Khalid Sindawi, “The Shiite Turn in
Syria,” Hudson Institute, Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, vol. 8,
82-127,
http://www.currenttrends.org/research/detail/the-shiite-turn-in-syria.
8. Ibid., 84.
9. Ibid., 89-90.
10. Martin Kramer, “The Shiite Crescent Eclipsed,” April 16, 2013,
http://www.martinkramer.org/sandbox/2013/04/the-shiite-crescent-is-broken.
11. Nadia von Maltzahn, “The Case of Iranian Cultural Diplomacy in Syria,”
Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 2 (2009): 33-50.
12. Rabbiah Jamal, “Iraq’s Kateeb Hezbollah announces involvement in Syria,”
Now Lebanon, April 7, 2013.
13. See the excellent article by Hanin Ghadder, “Hezbollah sacrifices
popularity for survival: In Syria, The Party of God is struggling for an
un-divine victory,” Now Lebanon, April 10, 2013.
14. Karen DeYoung and Joby Warrick, “Iran and Hezbollah Build Militia
Networks in Syria in Event that Assad Falls, Officials Say,” The Washington
Post, February 10, 2013,
http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-02-10/world/37026054_1_syrian-government-forces-iran-and-hezbollah-president-bashar.
15. www.metransparent.com, April 25, 2013.
16. Subhi Tufayli, interview, Al Arabiya, February 26, 2013.
=======
About Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira

Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira is a senior research associate at the
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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