Comment: Iran’s displacement of Syrian Sunnis

While Tehran is building a Shi’ite canton around Damascus, Israel should consider aiding the Syrian rebels against the common enemy.

Smoke rises following an explosion on the Syrian side near the Quneitra border crossing between the Golan Heights and Syria, August 29, 2014. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Smoke rises following an explosion on the Syrian side near the Quneitra border crossing between the Golan Heights and Syria, August 29, 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Years ago Syrian activists began to share information about a lot of Iranians coming to Damascus seeking to own houses and business in the heart of the capital. They exploited the insecure atmosphere created by the ongoing civil war that began in 2011.
Syrian citizens had grown tired of the ongoing battles between the regime and opposition groups. Fighting was raging around the outskirts of the city, and opposition groups were spreading.
Thousands of Syrians sold their houses to these Shi’ite strangers from Iran and other countries and hundreds of thousands departed the city and its suburbs for neighboring countries, seeking refuge.
It came to the point that a prominent Syrian Sunni cleric issued a fatwa, or Islamic religious ruling, forbidding the selling of houses in Damascus to Shi’ites. That shows the extent to which it was felt they were a danger to the city.
Damascus holds a special historical role for Sunnis because it was the capital of the Umayyad caliphate.
Recently Shi’ite rituals began to spread in the city. They held their religious festivals frequently and publicly in the streets of Damascus in an unprecedented way. A few years ago Shi’ites used to come to some shrines in Damascus, but they didn’t make the kind of noise and mass marches they do today. They never shouted the name of “Husayn,” for instance, the figure who is holy in Shi’ite ideology. These phenomena are a result of the tolerance the Syrian regime has for its main support in Iran and the Shi’ite theocratic regime there. It forms the basis of a kind of plan to seize Damascus and make it a capital of a Shi’ite canton that extents from Qalamun, which is held by Hezbollah, on the border with Lebanon to western Damascus and Quneitra on the border with Israel.
THIS PAST month witnessed negotiations in Istanbul between Ahrar ash-Sham, one of the most powerful rebel groups fighting the regime, and an Iranian delegation. They were discussing the struggle over Al Zabadani city, west of Damascus, which sits on the border with Lebanon and has been under siege by Hezbollah and regime forces for three months. The other subject of the negotiations were two Shi’ite towns in the countryside north of Idlib that were under siege by rebel opposition forces. These negotiations over a cease-fire failed several times because the Iranian side kept insisting on evacuating Zabadani’s population (which is primarily Sunni).
Recently sources from both the Iranian side and Syrian opposition groups claimed an agreement was sealed to evacuate Al Zabadani and move its population to an opposition-controlled area in exchange for evacuating the two northern Shi’ite towns of Kafraya and Fua to areas controlled by the regime. It was never executed.
What is interesting is that throughout the negotiations, no representative of the regime attended. It was all conducted through Iran and that shows clearly the extent of the Syrian regime’s subordination to Iran which it has been depending on for support for the past four years.
The regime has also been laying siege to other towns west of Damascus, with daily shelling to push the civilian population to leave. Reports from the region indicate that the regime facilitates the depopulation, and that Syrian army officers are involved in this business, taking money to let civilians pass to areas controlled by the rebels. Syrian security forces know what is happening and they turn a blind eye to it.
The larger plan is similar to what happened in Baghdad and parts of Iraq where Iran is influential; to transform Damascus and its rural environs into a Shi’ite area and cleanse it of the Sunnis who were a majority of the population before the war.
RECENTLY another opposition group fighting the regime in the eastern outskirts of Damascus, calling itself the “Islamic Army,” made a statement accusing the regime of shelling the center of Damascus to force Damascene citizens to leave and make demographic changes to the city.
The regime began to bulldoze thousands of houses in the Mazza neighborhood west of Damascus according to footage published by local activists. It has been doing this under the pretext of “rebuilding” the neighborhood. We estimate that some 200,000 Sunni Muslims have left because of this “project” while the regime is giving the houses to members of Shi’ite militias fighting alongside it. As a result of the war’s past two years, much of the Sunni areas in Damascus have been turned into a Shi’ite canton, which stretches to the Israeli border and should be of concern to Israel.
Iran has already sent fighters to the Quneitra border with Israel, consisting mainly of Hezbollah militia.
Reports from activists there say that Iran equipped Druse fighters under the supervision of Samir Kuntar, the former prisoner in Israel. The main task of the groups was to expel the opposition groups from the area and create an arc of “resistance to Israel and liberating the Golan Heights.” These groups have had the main role of stopping opposition groups that launched an offensive to break through to the western countryside of Damascus.
The Russian intervention in Syria at the beginning of last month was initially and primarily aimed at protecting the coastal area of Syria in which the Russians have a military base and turning this area into Russia’s bailiwick in the region. This made Iran even more determined to create its own sphere of influence and control in the area discussed above, so that any future settlement of the Syrian conflict would reflect these new facts on the ground.
The intermittent shelling of regime garrisons in the area of Quneitra, which borders the Golan, in the past months indicates that Israel feels there is a danger. But this kind of shelling is not enough to thwart Iran’s aims. Any breakdown in the opposition forces or a change in the strategy of the rebels in the area in which they withdraw from the border area will leave Israel face to face with Iran’s militias, and will result in pressure building in Iran to blackmail Israel. Iran will feel emboldened to show itself as the leader of the “axis of resistance” to Israel.
If Israel really wants to push Iran away from its border it can do so by supporting the opposition forces through shelling the Iranian militias. The last Israeli attack, our sources tell us, struck the Syrian army’s 90th brigade and helped the opposition make remarkable progress north of Quneitra. The rebel forces in the area consist of Free Syrian Army, not more Islamist groups, and Israel should be encouraged to help them.

The author is a Syrian activist from Aleppo.