Through Evangelism and Settlements, Iran Is Remaking Syria in Its Image

Jan. 24 2023

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.

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Read more at Middle East Quarterly

More about: Iran, Shiites, Syria, Syrian civil war

UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon Risk Their Lives, but Still May Do More Harm Than Good

Jan. 27 2023

Last month an Irish member of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was killed by Hizballah guerrillas who opened fire on his vehicle. To David Schenker, it is likely the peacekeeper was “assassinated” to send “a clear message of Hizballah’s growing hostility toward UNIFIL.” The peacekeeping force has had a presence in south Lebanon since 1978, serving first to maintain calm between Israel and the PLO, and later between Israel and Hizballah. But, Schenker explains, it seems to be accomplishing little in that regard:

In its biannual reports to the Security Council, UNIFIL openly concedes its failure to interdict weapons destined for Hizballah. While the contingent acknowledges allegations of “arms transfers to non-state actors” in Lebanon, i.e., Hizballah, UNIFIL says it’s “not in a position to substantiate” them. Given how ubiquitous UN peacekeepers are in the Hizballah heartland, this perennial failure to observe—let alone appropriate—even a single weapons delivery is a fair measure of the utter failure of UNIFIL’s mission. Regardless, Washington continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into this failed enterprise, and its local partner, the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Since 2006, UNIFIL patrols have periodically been subjected to Hizballah roadside bombs in what quickly proved to be a successful effort to discourage the organization proactively from executing its charge. In recent years, though, UN peacekeepers have increasingly been targeted by the terror organization that runs Lebanon, and which tightly controls the region that UNIFIL was set up to secure. The latest UN reports tell a harrowing story of a spike in the pattern of harassment and assaults on the force. . . .

Four decades on, UNIFIL’s mission has clearly become untenable. Not only is the organization ineffective, its deployment serves as a key driver of the economy in south Lebanon, employing and sustaining Hizballah’s supporters and constituents. At $500 million a year—$125 million of which is paid by Washington—the deployment is also expensive. Already, the force is in harm’s way, and during the inevitable next war between Israel and Hizballah, this 10,000-strong contingent will provide the militia with an impressive human shield.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: Hizballah, Lebanon, Peacekeepers, U.S. Foreign policy