Many Syrians believe that the massive support that the Syrian regime has received from Iran during its armed confrontation with the Free Syrian Army has not come without a price, which is now being paid. The goal of this support is to achieve the Iranian regime’s objectives of exporting and spreading Shiism and the concept of “wilayat al-faqih” [“rule by Islamic jurist,” Iran’s system of governance].
The people, who suffer from oppression and poverty, focus mainly on how to obtain their daily food and a decent life. This is especially the case for those who live in an environment of ignorance and marginalization imposed by authoritarian regimes, which attempt to keep the people in this state for political purposes. Such people can easily be a victim of the Iranian serpent, which is spewing its venom across the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Conversion to Shiism began secretly in Syria, especially after Assad the son came to power, with the blessing of the US. The son has inherited from his father a history that the Syrian people will have a hard time forgetting.
Nonetheless, Hafez al-Assad aimed to prevent other states from interfering in Syria’s internal affairs, especially Iran, which had aspirations that became clear after Bashar gained power.
Iran has involved its most prominent figures in Syrian internal politics, exactly as it did in Iraq following the American occupation, which handed Iraq to Iran on a silver platter as spoils.
The Iranian regime led by Khamenei – the supreme leader and the country’s primary decision-maker – was able to achieve its objectives in Syria by taking advantage of the fragility of policy-making at the top of the Syrian regime’s hierarchy. This approach was coupled with intelligence coordination with senior Syrian officials, including Hisham Bakhtiar, who is of Iranian origin. This coordination also took place among decision-makers including senior intelligence officers in the Syrian leadership. Moreover, the Iranian regime has deliberately pursued the project of converting the Syrians to Shiism, relying on its proven usual methods, adding this time a policy of [diplomatic] incentives, since it is dealing with a foreign country and not its own territory.
In 2004, conversion to Shiism began in the remote areas of northeastern Syria, especially among segments of communities living in the villages of provinces that suffer from marginalization, poverty and ignorance. The conversion strategy depended on the living and economic status in those areas. The Iranians began by building mosques and schools while hiding its true and primary objectives, which ordinary people there did not think about. But they eventually found themselves and their children frequenting what are called husseiniyat [Shia shrines], which were built along with mosques, newly-paved roads, and other projects that aim to lure unsophisticated people and attract them towards the melodies that praised the love of Islam and the prophet’s family members. Such projects were promoted as a charitable endeavors carried out by good people in this country.
The International Religious Freedom Report, published by the US State Department in 2006, claims that Shia in Syria do not exceed 1% of the population, compared with only 0.04% in 1953. They live in most Syrian provinces, but are concentrated in Tartous, which includes 44% of all Syrian Shia.
A field study funded by the European Union in 2006 stated that the proportion of the total instances of conversion to Shiism among the Ismai’li sect is as follows: Idleb (1%), Hama (51%), Tartous (43%), Aleppo (3%), and Damascus (2%). The proportion of Shia among the Syrian population does not exceed 2%.
On the other hand, the distribution of Sunnis converting to Shiism across Syria’s provinces is as follows: Homs (22%), Hama (5%), Idleb (4%), Damascus (23%), and Aleppo (46%). The provinces of Raqqa and Deir-ez-Zor in the east of Syria, and Daraa and Quneitra in the south were not mentioned in the report.
Contrary to the report’s findings, Shiism in Deir-ez-Zor and Raqqa cannot be considered insignificant, because the process of Shia invasion of the province began in 2004 and has continued. The demographic composition of Deir-ez-Zor province is not very different from that of Iraq, especially from the perspective of tribal and clan-based organization. Even Deir-ez-Zor’s urban areas, where the lifestyle is as open as in other cities, most people are of tribal origin, and adhere to their still-rooted habits, customs and traditions, aligning with Syrian conservatism in religion and religiosity, avoiding the openness and new social customs of some segments of Syrian society, and some Syrian minorities.
For these reasons, the process of conversion to Shiism began in remote areas, where tribalism predominates, and in areas lacking cultural awareness, where large segments of young people are constrained by ignorance – especially in the remote villages of Deir-ez-Zor province. This encouraged Iran’s agents in Syria to take advantage of this phenomenon by dealing with the most respected sheikhs, who usually consider religion to be the only salvation for them and for the nation, according to bases established in the past by their ancestors, and according to their own accumulated experiences. They taught this heritage to their children, who took on this religious tendency and did not interact with others segments of Syria’s citizenry who hold ideas different from theirs.
Hatlah is a town on the outskirts of the Deir-ez-Zor city. For the reasons mentioned above, Iran’s plan to convert it to Shiism was implemented there beginning in 2004. Hatah’s most important feature is its mixed population. Its inhabitants are from different villages controlled by the regime and its sectarian militias, who found an ideologically-prepared social incubator there, dominated by Islamic political blindness disguised as the protection offered by sectarian militias that belong, in fact, to the Assad regime. The same situation exists in the Jura and al-Koussur neighborhoods, which are the main refugee camps and the backbone of the regime in the province.
The Shia plan in Hatlah has continued to expand using the well-known temptations, the most important of which are the provision of food and monthly salaries, distributed according to loyalties by a group from the town who claim to be religious. Other regions consider such aid to be a tempting prize rather than a contract of loyalty or an acceptance of the terms “religion and the love of Al al-Bayt [the family of the Prophet]” which are already a basic part of their normal life.
The cash aid and benefits come with registration of the families who receive them from the mukhtar of the neighborhood or the Imam of the mosque, who concentrates his speeches during Friday’s prayers on Al al-Bayt, Zahraa, Hussein, and Ali, moving the crowd, or “herd,” inside the mosque to the same displays of crying, sobbing, and self-flagellation that we see in husseiniyat and during Shia holy days. People thus overcome the sadness that has accrued in their minds as a result of events in Syria: the bloodshed and the displacement of millions of their brothers and sons, which is caused by those who feed them with one hand while stabbing them in the back with the other.