Syria’s Alawite minority, 12 percent of Syria’s 15-million population, is both the backbone of the Assad Baath regime’s strength and the source of its vulnerability against the Sunni Muslim majority.
A new US intelligence report of 147 pages, the first copies of which were circulated earlier this week in Washington, London and Paris, reveals that President Bashar Assad, in sharp contrast to his father Hafez, whom he succeeded in 2000, has opened the door wide to Iranian religious missionaries.
Tehran is not only allowed to move in on Syria’s propaganda, education and religious institutions, but also on the president’s own Alawite faith, a secretive offshoot of Shiite Islam regarded by orthodox Sunni Muslims as heretic.
Far from bending to the condition laid down by the United States and Israel for an opening to any sort of diplomacy and conciliation, Syria is deepening its ties with Tehran.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East sources reveal that for the first time since they became allies, Syria last week staged mass celebrations marking the new national festival, the birthday of Ayatollah Khomeini, founding father of the Revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran. One of the events was the president’s permission for Tehran’s main Islamic University to open branches in Damascus and other Syrian cities. Generous Iranian stipends are being offered young Syrians who join the new student bodies.
As the US intelligence report notes, in his three decades as president, Hafez Assad took good care to curb Iranian Shiite attempts at the religious and cultural penetration of Syria. His son and successor has no such inhibitions.
More than a quarter of a million Shiite converts
Whereas during the 26 years of the father’s rule, 55,000 Syrians converted to Shia, this figure has ballooned to more than quarter of a million since the son came to power eight years ago.
Whereas the early converts hailed from Syria’s Mediterranean coastal region, the new Shiites are Damascenes and denizens of outlying towns.
The changing geographical spread has social implications; Iranian missionaries are focusing their efforts not only on the Alawite community, but on the Syrian middle class. The number of new Shiite mosques has increased fourfold since the 1980s and 1990s, while the number of Shiite religious institutions has trebled. At the compound of the Shiite saint, Saida Zainab, near Damascus, Iran has established 12 medressas and 3 new Shiite theological colleges.
Assad is permitting Iranian religious activists to appropriate most of the Muslim shrines in Syria and make them over as Shiite places of pilgrimage.
The US intelligence report describes two of Tehran’s practices for spreading the Shiite faith.
The Iranian and Syrian governments have embarked on joint projects for renovating and rebuilding all the Shiite sites in the country. Tehran foots the bill. In the process, the builders expand the compounds and purloin sites belonging to rival faiths.
Second, an Iranian campaign has been launched to recruit and organize members of the Iraqi Shiite sect called Sheraze, hundreds of thousands of whose followers migrated to Syria over the years. They are being harnessed to Tehran’s goals in Syria.