Before 2011, Syrians — and the residents of Damascus specifically — had not witnessed visits by Shia pilgrims to Old Damascus apart from the sort of religious tourism that stimulated economic life in the capital. This form of tourism has developed greatly, and it aims to take control of any area which has a religious landmark associated with any Shia figure. This has turned them from areas to practice religious rituals into military barracks and centers for sectarian mobilization and conscription, in an attempt to transform the area’s features, establish control over it, and to entice and intimidate residents at the same time.
The Center of Belief Researches, a project concerned with the spread of Shia Islam around the world, estimates that the number of Syrian Shia in 2013 was between 300,000 and 500,000 people. Other sources say they comprise 4 to 4.5 percent of the population. This number is the closest to what is circulated on the street, but these numbers do not express the real number, especially following the recent displacements in the capital’s countryside and some other districts, which have witnessed a Shia expansion led by Iran and its proxies in Syria, most importantly the Lebanese group Hezbollah.
Residents of the capital Damascus have witnessed many Iranian sectarian practices, beginning with the expansion of Shia shrines through its so-called Committee for the Reconstruction of Holy Sites, and the establishment of “coordination offices” that include a number of religious institutions, most prominently the Al-Sham Institute for Sharia Studies, as well as sheikhs from the Ummayad Mosque and representatives from the Shia Howza in Damascus. Its base is in the Al-Amin district, where it formulates religious sermons that accord with Iran’s policies, and dictate how to deliver Friday sermons and other activities which it oversees.
In addition, a store owner in the Al-Amara district of Old Damascus said that “Iranians are working constantly in the tombs and old districts to excavate any shrine belonging to Ahl Al-Beit, and make it into a major pilgrimage site. They then buy the land and the surrounding houses, and establish a Husseiniyah, making the area owned almost entirely by them.”
The source said, “In the Bab al-Saghir tomb in Damascus, they have set up a new shrine called the Karbala Martyrs shrine. In the burial site there are a group of graves for the wives of the prophet, which they have taken a great deal of care with and spend large sums to impress the Iranian pilgrims who see them. The Iranians believe that it is actually a place set up hundreds of years ago and only discovered recently.”
Shiification and Religious Schools
Iran is trying to implement the Iraqi model in Syria and is infiltrating by way of religious, school and university grants and allocating special budgets for this purpose. A few months ago, the Iranian Tasnim agency published a report about the establishment of a religious academy in Damascus after a meeting between the regime’s Minister of Religious Endowments and the head of the Strategic Council for Foreign Relations in Iran. This college will be under the authority of the “World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought,” which is another Iranian agency.
Iran has also opened a branch of the Islamic Free University, known as Azad, in Damascus, in addition to opening schools and seminaries in the Mazanet al-Shaham area, and the al-Joura district inside the Old City and near the Shia shrines there.
According to area’s residents, the establishment of these seminaries and religious schools serve a number of purposes. The first is to establish their presence in these areas and expand their Shia base, as these institutions are not limited to education, but also have social and service aspects and spread Shia Islam among residents of the area as well as mobilizing young men and incorporating them into their militias by offering money and weapons generously. One resident of the Al-Amara district says, “Money and food are continuously distributed in the Old Damascus area, and Iran follows a policy of enticement to bring young men — especially teenagers — and incorporate them into their militias. They thereby fulfill two aims: First they win supporters from among the young men and establish control over their minds by providing money and weapons, and secondly they ensure there are no opponents to their presence in the area and that there are no security breaches in these areas.”
This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.