During his January 10 speech in Cairo, US Secretary
of State Mike Pompeo asserted that the United States will use “diplomacy and
work with our partners until every last Iranian boot is expelled” from Syria.
The emphasis on Iranian “boots” underscores how Washington and its regional partners have long focused on the military facets of Iran’s entrenchment in Syria—namely, its deployment of forces to ensure the Assad regime’s survival, threaten Israel, and secure a land bridge connecting Tehran to Beirut via Baghdad and Damascus, Hanin Ghaddar and Dana Stroul wrote in the Washington Institute.
Yet Iran’s leaders also recognize that securing long-term influence in Syria requires more than military means. Accordingly, they are applying best practices from their experience with Hezbollah in Lebanon, where the powerful Iranian proxy has entrenched itself not only militarily, but also politically, religiously, and culturally. To extend this model to Syria, Tehran is pursuing two lines of effort:
The first is purchasing real estate, changing demographics, and developing networks of support between Damascus and the Lebanese border, with the ultimate goal of establishing a geographical area of control similar to Hezbollah’s stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburbs.
The second line is pushing social, religious, and economic programs designed to woo underserved communities who may not be ideologically aligned with Tehran but lack viable alternatives.
If curbing Iran’s presence in Syria remains a priority for the United States, policymakers should quickly adopt new methods to counter these soft-power activities.
Confiscating Sunni Property in West Syria
Iran is heavily invested in securing Damascus, its suburbs, and the zone extending from the Shia Muslim shrine of Sayyida Zaynab to the Lebanese border. In Tehran’s view, this requires systematic demographic changes. Over the past year, Sunni communities have been pushed out of their long-time homes and replaced by people friendly to Iran and the Assad regime.
To provide a legal basis for such measures, the regime issued Law No. 10 last April. This legislation gave Syrian property owners thirty days to find a local regime administrator and file an ownership claim in person—a clear attempt to wrest land from Sunnis, who constitute the bulk of wartime refugees and were largely unable or unwilling to return in time to file claims.
Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps have
exploited this situation to purchase numerous properties. According to reports
quoting Syrian officials, more than 8,000 properties in the Damascus area have
been transferred to foreign Shia owners in the past three years.
Iran is also transforming local Sunni mosques into Shia religious centers and shrines, as well as constructing new Shia meeting halls, mosques, and schools. Anecdotal reporting suggests that the Assad regime has closed some of these Shia centers in Russian-controlled areas of the country, but has failed to do so in the Iranian-controlled areas around Damascus and Sayyida Zaynab.