A few weeks ago when the government in Tehran dispatched a team of journalists to Syria the idea was that they would report on “the historic victory” achieved by the Islamic Republic, Russia and their protégé Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo. For more than six years, that is to say since Iran threw its weight behind Assad’s beleaguered regime in Damascus, this kind of journalistic missions had been routine.
The mission pursued two major gals. The first was to reassure the Iranian public about the Syrian adventurer by creating the impression that the side backed by Tehran was wining. The second was to tell part of the Syrian population that is still under the control of Assad that his regime was not as isolated as it appeared.
The journalistic mission would visit a number of locations and film its comings and goings for screening on television channels in Tehran and Damascus. There would be reports about deeds of derring-do by Iranian “volunteers” and their companions from the Lebanese “Hezbollah,” and, more recently, Afghan and Pakistani mercenaries.
Television footage would show Syrians, often old women and children, thanking the Iranian “Supreme leader” for “protecting them against terrorists.” In exchange visiting Iranian journalists would tell the Damascus TV of their “great admiration” for President Assad’s “courage and steadfastness in resistance.” The exercise would try to make everyone in Tehran and Damascus feel good about themselves.
There would be “documentaries” about “holy shrines” that Iranians had never heard of but were not presented as “jewels of Islam saved by Tehran and its allies from destruction by Takfirists. The late general Hussein Hamadani, killed in combat in Syria, put the number of those “only shrines” at over 10,000, an astonishing figure by any standards. The Syrian war was presented not as a civil war between an unwanted ruler and the mass of the Syrian people but as a “Jihad” to save those “holy shrines”.
However, with Russia’s increasing involvement from 2015 onwards in the Syrian war, the line about protecting “holy shrines” gradually became harder to sell.
Why would Vladimir Putin invest blood and treasure simply to save shrines of dubious historic authenticity from demolition? Worse still, there was no evidence that anybody wanted to destroy those shrines that, though often forgotten, had been there untouched for centuries.
Thus, the “mission” organized in the wake of Aleppo’s surrender to Russian carpet-bombing was meant to inject two new themes in the narrative – the first was that, having won “a historic victory”, Russia and Iran were working together to reshape not only Syria but the entire Middle East. Iran was to be cast as the principal, the host, and Russia as the guest, the assistant, in an epoch-making enterprise.
The second theme to be injected was a massive expansion of Iran’s “cultural presence” alongside its military one.
“Syrians are thirsty for Shi’ism” claimed Ayatollah Mohsen Araki, the man in charge of Islamic Convergence (taqrib).
The idea was that, with the war supposedly won by Iran and its allies, it was time to flood Syria not with military helmets but with clerical turbans to guide wayward Syrians back towards “true Islam.”
However, the first post-Aleppo mission revealed quite a different picture. This time there were no optimistic documentaries and few website reportages with even fewer photos. Leaks from some of the participants, including a long talk with a senior member of the mission reveal a political landscape that has radically altered against Iran and whatever ambitions it might have harbored in Syria.
To start with, the Iranians noticed a dramatic increase in Russian presence. There were Russian “advisers” at the airport, to be consulted about who could and who couldn’t enter the enclave under Assad’s control. One member of the mission also claims that it was also because of a Russian veto that the Iranian media mission wasn’t allowed to travel to Aleppo.
Russia is clearly trying to carve itself a secure haven between the mountains west of Damascus and the Mediterranean. There has been a substantial reduction in Russian activity from the air while Russian foot print on the ground is enlarged.
The secure haven Russia is building is closed to Iranians and, in some cases, even to Assad’s skeleton administration.
Before the civil war began, Iran had set up 14 “cultural centers” across Syria to promote its brand of Islam and propagate the Khomeinist ideology. Those centers organized classes, including in the Persian language, offered scholarships for training in Iran, screened authorized films from Iran, and held seminars on Khomeini and Khamenei’s “philosophies”.
Today, most of those centers are either shut because they were in areas controlled by anti-Assad rebels, or partly shut down because their security is no longer assured.
According to members of the mission, Iran’s presence in Syria, including its substantial military footprint, is in self-protection mode. The main aim is to reduce the level of casualties rather than try and seize area from numerous rebel groups. Even if uprooted, it will return to life.
More interestingly, perhaps, the members of the mission who responded to queries report a fragmentation of Assad’s camp into numerous armed groups controlling different chunks of territory even inside the part of Damascus still nominally controlled by the regime. Some of these groups could be regarded as bitter-enders or desperados ready to fight to the last man. Others, however, demonstrated a degree of flexibility about the possibility of making a deal with anti-regime rebels that surprised the visitors.
One member of the mission claims he was “struck” by the degree of “Syrian-ness” he and others noticed among fighters who had joined Assad’s side under the banner of sectarianism.
Unlike previous missions, the latest one to Syria was unable to offer anything more than faint echoes in Tehran’s tightly-controlled media. But the tone of what was offered clearly depicts a different picture of Syria as a nation divided into two camps motivated by sectarian sentiments. Some of us have long argued that Assad has become irrelevant, a dead horse neighing but going nowhere. What is remarkable is that even Russia and Iran do not enjoy the kind of power that many assumed they had to either prolong or to shorten the Syrian tragedy.