Since the 1970s, Syria’s ruling Alawite minority—adherents of a syncretistic faith considered by many Islamic scholars not to be Muslim at all—have sought with some success to have their religion considered a branch of Shiism. Receiving recognition as such from Shiite religious authorities has helped pave the way for closer relations with Iran. Tehran, under the circumstances of the Syrian civil war, has gone a step further, trying to establish a significant Shiite presence in the war-torn country. Rauf Baker writes:
To achieve their ambitious goals, the Iranians adopted a two-pronged strategy: converting Sunni Muslims to Shiism and settling Shiites from neighboring countries throughout Syria. The campaign focused on middle-class and poor Sunnis in different regions across the country, particularly in areas deemed of strategic and demographic importance to Tehran. Contrary to popular belief, it is easier to convert a Sunni to [mainstream, Iranian] Shiism than an Alawite.
Tehran’s military entrenchment in Syria during the civil-war years has been highly conducive to its dogged hegemonic quest and the revenge it seeks against Sunnis on historical grounds. It enabled the Islamic Republic to tighten its grip over Iraq, to transform Hizballah into Lebanon’s effective master, to establish a land corridor between the Iranian border and the Mediterranean Sea, and to intensify the military threat to Israel and Jordan both by deploying [its] forces and associated Shiite militias in southern Syria and by giving Hizballah the ability to wreak havoc on Israel’s population centers and national infrastructure.
What makes these achievements all the more significant, and potentially far more enduring, is the attendant transformation of Syria’s sociocultural character through a mixture of Shiification activities (e.g., establishment of shrines and institutions, initiation of Shiite practices, conversion to Shiism), humanitarian aid, and settlement of foreign Shiites in deserted localities across Syria. And while this strategy coincides with the Assad regime’s short-term desire to ensure its survival (hence the string of laws and decrees aimed at barring Syrian refugees’ return), it gives Tehran ever-growing grassroots support that may enable it to keep the regime subservient to its wishes.
A bleak prognosis indeed, for just as the mayhem and devastation occasioned by the war enabled the Iranian entrenchment in Syria, so Tehran may cynically deem the continuation of the conflict as the most desirable scenario in the foreseeable future.