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Iran’s  Plans  to  Take  Over  Syria   Brg.-­Gen  (ret.)  Dr.  Shimon  Shapira,     May  2,  2013                      

        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.  

 


Iran's Plans to Take Over Syria