London, Asharq Al-Awsat – Strategic relations between Iran and Syria are crucial for both states. However, these relations have been consolidated in Syria, rather than Iran. Today, most inter-political, -economic, -cultural and -religious projects are established in Damascus, which has become a hub for Iranian religious tourism.
Iranian tourists to Syrian religious sites number between 500,000 and one million, and dozens of Shia theological centers, or hawzas, as well as Iranian cultural and educational centers have been established across Syria. However, bilateral relations have also generated tension, especially in Syria.
Iranian activity in Syria, particularly restoring and building Shia shrines, has Syria worried about the spread of Shiism in the country. The Ahlul Bayt Society, headed by former Iranian ambassador to Syria Mohammad Hassan Akhtari, is active in Syria. The Society, which is affiliated to the Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Khamenei and plans and finances Shia centers around the world, expanded a theological center in Damascus, making it the third largest hawza in the world, after the Hawza al Ilmiyah in Qum, Iran and Najaf, Iraq.
Syria hosts 500 hawzas and Husseiniyat, which edify thousands of Iranian clerics. The Ahlul Bayt Society will soon inaugurate an Islamic bank, a television channel and an Islamic financial institution to promote multilateral relations among Islamic countries.
Regarding the activities of the Ahlul Bayt Society, Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader Ali Sadreddin Al-Bayanouni said to Asharq Al-Awsat: “The real problem is not that a number of people have become Shia, but that Shiism has been disseminated and caused problems within Syrian society. When people convert from being Sunni to Shia, it provokes Sunni scholars and individuals and creates problems within the fabric of the Syrian society. I know that significant divisions have occurred in some villages due to the dissemination of Shiism. Many reports have declared unlimited Iranian support to Shiism in Syria. There is an attempt to establish cultural centers for disseminating Shiism in Syria in different governorates and cities that have never known this before.”
Al-Bayanouni also discussed the causes of the spread of Shiism in Syria: “There is a religious doctrinal reason and a political one. The wave of Iranian progress in Syria hasn’t been limited to Shiism. There is cultural, charitable and even military Iranian activity. Iranian influence in Syria is not only doctrinal, but also political, social and military. Husseiniyats are being built for the Shia minority in Aleppo, Idlib and the new Shia villages in Jaser Ashour and others. On the radio in Damascus, the call to prayer is broadcast at times from the shrine of Sayyeda Zainab or Sayyeda Ruqayah according to the Shia method; that is, they add ‘come to the good deed’ after saying ‘come to prayer and come to success.’ This wasn’t the case before in Syria.”
However, Mohamed Habash, an official in the Syrian parliament’s Iranian-Syrian Relations Committee, played down these fears. Habash told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The Iranian revolution happened 29 years ago. For 29 years, there have been strategic relations between Syria and the Iranian revolution. The Iranians have existed and been active in Syria for 29 years and none of these fears ever materialized. We live in Syria and see what the Iranians produce and there are no dangers of this kind that they are talking about. Preaching does not change demographics, as some think. Yes, the Iranians are undertaking some activities to restore some shrines however this sensitivity doesn’t exist in Syria towards the shrines of Ahlul Bayt [the Prophet’s family]. We have shrines in Syria, such as those of Ibn Arabi and Sheikh Khaled Al-Naqshbandi, and we haven’t demolished our shrines. When a Shia restores, with Iranian funds, the shrines of Sayyeda Ruqayah, Sayyeda Sakinah, the daughter of Hussein, or Ammar Bin Yasser, this doesn’t worry the Syrians; rather it makes them happy because they feel that it is their duty to build these shrines.”
Habash continued: “Administrations will certainly be established and consequently, scholarly circles and studies and research centers will be founded. All of this doesn’t worry the Syrians. We are working in the Islamic field, ascending pulpits and meeting the Sunnis and Shia in Syria. We don’t feel there is resentment towards matters. It is certainly bad when someone comes with foreign funds to convince a man to change his doctrine. However, we have heard such claims for 29 years. There was nothing more than specific individual cases and these could have taken place even without what is called an Islamic revolution. What is taking place in Syria, including the revived interest in Shia religious shrines, is normal; there is great sympathy in Syria with Ahlul Bayt among the Shia, Sunnis and other denominations.”
The Ahlul Bayt Society in Damascus is not subject to the supervision of any Syrian governmental department. It is only affiliated with the Iranian embassy in Syria, which finances and supervises the construction of Husseiniyat and hawzas. This financing is also free from the supervision of Syrian authorities.
This is, perhaps, responsible for the difficulty in measuring the expenditures of the Society in Syria. Regarding this, Abdul Halim Khaddam, former vice-president under late Syrian President Hafez Assad, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “There are figures that come from Tehran, whether they are sheikhs or preachers, to the Iranian embassy. The Iranian embassy arranges their program for them. The line that they follow is that there are some graves of the Prophet’s Companions, who were close to Ali Ibn Abi Talib in Syria. The Iranians began to take an interest in these graves, erecting a shrine at each grave and establishing a Husseiniya beside it.”
“The process began in such a manner. If there is any trace that a person is related to the Prophet in any city, they go to this city and establish a shrine. Therefore there are a large number of shrines in Syria. In addition, Damascus is home to the Sayyeda Zainab district, visited by Iranians and Shia from all over the world. There were large groups of Iraqi refugees in Syria, including clerics, who established a number of Husseiniyat,” he added.
Today, in Damascus, particularly in regions with shrines dedicated to Ahlul Bayt, the Iranian presence is noticeable in everyday life; visitors are frequent, Iranian commodities are everywhere, Iranian currency is circulated among Iranian visitors and shops are owned by Iranians in Sayyeda Zainab (12 kilometers south of Damascus) and Sayyeda Ruqayah.
A Syrian source, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity to Asharq Al-Awsat, said: “The Iraqi and Iranian refugees are the largest groups today [in Syria]…in Sayyeda Zainab, it is difficult to differentiate between Iranian or Iraqi visitors, especially women, unless you hear what language they speak. Over 600,000 Iranian visitors travel annually to the shrine of Sayyeda Zainab, according to the official Iranian figures, although the circulated figures indicate twice as many visitors in total, including visitors from Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan and the Gulf countries. However, the majority of these are Iraqi residents and Iranian visitors. Their number increases during certain occasions, such as the birth and death of Sayyeda Zainab, Ashoura and Arbaeen Al Hussein [a Shia religious observation that occurs 40 days after Ashoura in commemoration of the martyrdom of Hussein Ibn Ali]. It is difficult to find a vacant room to rent, whether in a hotel or an apartment, during these occasions. There are no less than 200,000 people in the region [during these occasions], while the number of its registered inhabitants does not exceed 10,000 people.”
Outside Sayyeda Zainab, Iranian visitors fill Emara market behind the Ummayad Mosque in the old city and, to a lesser extent, Al Amin Street, Al Bahsa and Al Halbouni districts, which host many two and three star hotels, indicating that most of the visitors are lower-middle class and have come to visit the sacred thresholds, mostly on Ashoura. Asharq Hotel in Al Halbouni, which hosted meetings between Syrian leaders during coup and independence periods and was historically known as the Orion Palace, hosts mostly Iranian guests.
The shrine of Sayyeda Ruqayah underwent several expansions, the first of which was during the Ayyubid era, and subsequently three times under the Ottomans. It remained a small shrine visited by dozens of the region’s inhabitants until Iran financed a large-scale expansion over two decades.
The renovated area is estimated to cover 4,000 square meters, of which 600 meters are yard, and the remaining is portico, arena and the mosque, which stands adjacent to the shrine. Khaddam observed that Syrian authorities have succeeded so far in preventing the spread of Shiism to the Alawi sect, which Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad belongs to. He continued: “What is striking is that the Iranians have failed to spread Shiism to the Alawites. They have built Husseiniyat; however, no one has attended them.”
Some have suggested that Syrian authorities purposefully allow Iranians to conduct Shia activities in the Sunni regions to distract them from spreading to the Alawite sect. Khaddam added: “As a result of poverty, [the Iranians] could establish Husseiniyat and focus their activities in some Sunni regions. In Syria, the concern is not about Syria being converted to Shiism. However, this issue remains a sensitive one. Playing with issues related to creeds, religion and doctrines is dangerous. Currently, intellectuals began to recount the same speech not in regards to sectarian fanaticism, but with regards to concern over Iranian intervention in Syria’s affairs.”
Many believe that Shiism extends beyond the religious arena to the political one. They consider political influence rather than religious conversion to be the main objective of spreading Shiism. A prominent Western diplomat, who served many years in the American embassy in Damascus, said to Asharq Al-Awsat: “We have information on Shia activities undertaken by Iran in Syria. Without doubt, this is, to some extent, true. The same can be said about the Arab Maghreb. However, my analysis is that the issue has been exaggerated. In Syria, there is more religious Shia enthusiasm than political, as exhibited by conversion from one denomination to another. Naturally, there are some people converting to Shiism. However, it is not a considerable phenomenon.”
Many Syrian elites, especially the Sunni clerics, have been concerned by the spread of Shiism and the political influence of Iran. Some circles in Damascus feared that the growing relations among Tehran, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad might negatively affect the Palestinian factions, as was the case with Hezbollah.
Khaddam said: “Akhtari’s relations with the Palestinian factions were strong. He has established these relations between the Palestinian organizations and Tehran since the early years of his service in Syria, even before Hamas came to Syria with the rest of the factions. His ties were good with most factions and he took a number of Palestinian delegations to Tehran. For instance, he organized a conference about Jerusalem in Tehran with Palestinian authorities and other regional powers. The factions’ relations with Tehran are financial; Iran finances and gives assistance to the factions based on the alliance of the Islamic Jihad, Hamas and General Commander [of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command] Ahmed Jibril. Then it turned from finance to politics.”
Khaddam continued: “Today, we can say that convergence of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Iran is wider than that of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the regime in Syria. The reasons are: Firstly, both Islamic Jihad and Hamas are Islamic movements, and secondly, they have no roots in Syria since their presence is a new one. Hamas’ political commitment to Iran is the strongest; however, this doesn’t mean that there is no commitment with Syria; there is a limited commitment. Even with Iran, there is a limit to commitment. Let us suppose that Bashar Al-Assad reconciles with Israel and says to Hamas: ‘Go and reconcile with Fatah.’ They will pack their bags and leave Syria. They are influenced by Iran rather than Syria in strategic issues but with certain limits. Their strategic objectives are in line with Iran’s on their position toward Israel as an entity and the peace process. When it comes to Syria, it is different.”
Regarding the reception of Hamas in Damascus, Khaddam said: “When a problem arose between Jordan and Hamas and there were tensions between Syria and Yasser Arafat, Hamas was hosted in Damascus. The Palestinian factions used to take into account Syrian internal matters and didn’t embroil themselves in them. There is a margin in political issues. The condition of that margin is that it must not contradict the logic of Syrian politics. For instance, when a political difference took place between us and Abu Ammar [Arafat], we helped stir up dissension in Fatah and Fatah Al-Intifada emerged in 1983. Fatah Al-Intifada was a disgruntled bloc in Fatah. We employed its complaints to hasten the dissension process. Hence, it was a Syrian production intended to deal with Abu Ammar.”
Although Syrian-Iranian relations are strong, they have disagreed on their positions regarding the policies of Palestinian factions in Damascus. The most recent of these divergences concerned Syria’s participation in the Annapolis Peace Conference. A Palestinian official in Damascus indicated that tensions arose between Tehran and the Palestinian factions when Akhtari left Damascus.
The official, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Akhtari has played a role in trying to invite the Palestinian factions to Tehran following the Annapolis conference. He informed the Palestinian factions of a conference to be held in Tehran instead of Damascus. He sent airline tickets to all factions. Naturally, he told the Iranian government that the Palestinian factions agreed. However, the Iranian government was surprised by the Palestinian factions’ refusal and then problems arose.”
The official asserted that although Akhtari has contributed significantly to building relations among Tehran, Damascus and the Palestinian factions, “a clever man’s mistake is worth a thousand mistakes.”
Before Syria accepted the invitation to attend the Annapolis conference held in the US last November, Palestinian and Syrian factions had agreed to hold a conference in Damascus. However, the Damascus conference was postponed when Western-informed sources alleged that the conference’s real objective was to announce an alternative organization to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) comprising of the Palestinian factions in Damascus to create a legal framework for their movements in Gaza and the West Bank. The sources further indicated that Syria postponed the Damascus conference in the wake of Arab interventions to urge Syria to attend the Annapolis conference.
After the postponement, Iranian officials began criticizing the Annapolis conference, casting doubts on the potentials of its success and speculating about Damascus’ participation. Shortly after that, Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced it had invited all the Palestinian factions to attend a conference in Tehran in response to the Annapolis conference. The invitation and the conference’s title, ‘Against Annapolis’, were sources of embarrassment to the Palestinian factions in Damascus.
However, the embarrassment was not publicized; rather, some factions announced their approval of attending the Tehran conference, while others suggested postponement, and still others remained silent. During the short period of preparation for the conference, public tensions between Syria and Iran emerged.
Ali Badwan, Palestinian political writer and a former member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine in Damascus told Asharq Al-Awsat that the allegation that the Damascus conference aimed to establish an alternative to the PLO was false.
He continued: “The factions’ conference in Damascus didn’t present itself on behalf of the PLO. There was an agreement, among all the participating powers, that the conference is a political media station and nothing else. The Tehran conference is another thing. When Damascus’ conference was first postponed during the Annapolis conference, Iran asked to hold another conference but the factions naturally refused. They refused to avoid the appearance of a Syrian refusal and an Iranian approval on the subject. The factions refused and informed Iran that they would not accept Tehran arranging a conference. Tehran prepared invitations and everyone turned them down on the grounds that any conference must be discussed with them ahead of time. Therefore, the factions all refused. The first faction to refuse was Hamas. Therefore, I would say that Tehran’s conference failed at that time.”
Elaborating on the subject, Abu Sami Marawan from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) said to Asharq Al-Awsat: “When there was talk of holding the Annapolis conference, factions prepared to assemble an anti-Annapolis popular conference in Damascus. However, at the last minute, the conference was postponed and then cancelled. Then, the Iranians offered to host this conference in Tehran. The Palestinian factions unanimously apologized for declining the invitation due to the misunderstanding it would cause to many of our people and others. Nonetheless, this subject didn’t constitute any kind of sensitivity between the Palestinian factions and the Iranians.”
“Then, Damascus’ conference was held last January, but under another title. Instead of ‘Against Annapolis’ it was entitled ‘Supporting the Palestinian Fixed Points’. This had varied attendance of Damascus’ factions. The PFLP, the Democratic Front and the Palestinian People’s Party apologized for their lack of participation. The PFLP’s apology was based on the following considerations, including that the conference may not fill its stated objective of consolidating national unity. On the contrary, it might lead to more division as some factions didn’t attend it, leading to a kind of split in the Palestinian ranks,” he added.
Marawan said that Iranian-Palestinian coordination was established by meeting each faction separately. He explained: “Sessions between the Palestinian factions and the Iranian brothers are not held based on the social formula. There might be separate meetings between the factions and the Iranian brothers. This takes place on the basis of exchanging points of view and not that of coordination; each one of these powers has its own vision. Finally, the Palestinian-Iranian Relations Society was established. The Society began some activity within the framework of a department to follow relations between both the Palestinian and Iranian peoples. This committee was newly formed; it consists of representatives of all factions of the resistance in Damascus without exception.”
He denied that Tehran and Damascus compete with each other over the Palestinian factions. He continued: “Neither my brothers from other factions nor I felt this. If there is a Syrian-Iranian competition to pay court to the Palestinian factions, it is known by the dignitaries and intelligence agencies. As for us in the Palestinian factions, I can say that we have never felt this, neither in the Popular Front nor in others. Consequently, if there is something of this kind, it comes from intelligence of which I’m not informed.”
Although the Palestinian factions in Damascus and Iran disagreed about the Tehran conference, creating evident resentment in Iran, the tension did not, as some believe, infiltrate Syrian-Iranian relations for two reasons: First, the significant influence of the Iranian ambassador to Syria, and secondly, the nature of relations between Tehran and Damascus. Habash did not deny the powerful role of the Iranian ambassador to Damascus, indicating to Asharq Al-Awsat: “Is this issue a secret? Is there a reason for denying it? Of course Iran’s ambassador links Iran and its allies whether they are the Syrian state or the Palestinian factions of resistance and Hezbollah. This conclusion doesn’t require intelligence, it is natural. If we supposed the opposite, we would need additional intelligence to understand why they would be creating another channel. This is not ascribable to an ambassador. This is the sort of relationship between the Syrian state and Iran, not of an ambassador.”