Tehran’s “Useful Syria” is Almost Complete
by Hanin Ghaddar*
Once again, Syrians are being forced out of their towns by Regime forces and Hezbollah, and under the auspices of Russia. This time, al-Waar residents were required earlier this week to leave their besieged town in Homs, due to an agreement between regime forces and the negotiation team of the Al-Waar neighborhood. The agreement involved certain conditions such as evacuating fighters of the neighborhood and their families, in addition to other civilians who “would like to leave”, towards areas in Homs countryside, Idleb countryside and Jarablus countryside. The total number of the evacuated people is expected to reach 15 thousand, according to local sources.
This is not the first time Syrians were forced out of their homes, and it has been clear for a while that this sectarian transfer of citizens from certain areas in Syria is part of a larger Iranian plan to evacuate Sunni Syrians from towns and villages that fall into what is referred to as the “Useful Syria.” Iran has also been working diligently to bring in Shiite families – mainly from Iraq – to settle in the Sunni-free evacuated areas, to guarantee that this corridor will be Iran-friendly.
This part of Syria stretches from the Alawite Coast with Hezbollah’s strongholds in Lebanon. As Iran’s main Shiite proxy force, Hezbollah has already conducted ethnic cleansing of its own in certain areas along the border (e.g., its 2013 campaigns in al-Qusayr and the Qalamoun region). Also, hundreds of thousands of Sunnis were evacuated from Homs between 2011 and 2014, when a deal was finally struck with regime forces after starvation reached shocking levels.
Since then, besieging towns and villages – and starving residents – became the regime’s strategy to force agreements that would get the residents out of Iran’s “Useful Syria” and allowing Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) to complete a corridor that links the coast of Syria to the borders of Lebanon through Homs to Qalamoun. This corridor – for Iran – needs to be Sunni free. But in order to secure it, it has to be finalized before any international diplomatic or political agreement for Syria. And any such agreement has to recognize Iran’s control over this part of Syria; otherwise, Iran’s proxy Shiite militias will never leave Syria, and will never stop their military operations.
This demographic strategy is probably not going to stop with al-Waar. The remaining Sunnis in Ghouta, Zabadani, Madaya, Yarmouk, and other areas around Damascus will eventually be forced out as well. And this is happening in parallel to similar demographic changes in Aleppo and its suburbs and other parts of Syria. As much as the coast needs to be linked to the borders to Lebanon, the borders of Syria also have to be linked to the borders of Iraq.
Iran’s bigger picture of “Useful Syria” only works if it is viewed in the context of Iran’s operations and control over both Iraq and Lebanon. Accordingly, this physical corridor in Syria would link Iran, Iraq, and the almost-complete “useful Syria” to the Beqa Valley and Hezbollah military stronghold in the south of Lebanon, and Tehran’s Shiite-controlled crescent would be whole.
In Iraq, Iran’s operations are underway to finalize its control after Mousel. Iran would likely be able to establish a corridor from the Iraqi border province of Diyala, up through the Hamrin Mountains northeast of Tikrit, and all the way up to Tal Afar en route to Sinjar on the Syrian border. On the other side of Syria, Iranian-backed forces already have multiple routes to Lebanon via al-Qusayr and other towns in the Qalamoun region. So far, despite the renewed US threats to Iran with President Trump administration, no serious measures have been established to counter Iran’s plan for the region. If this continues, Iran will be able to finalize its Shiite crescent before long.
Although a land bridge might not be of major significance to Tehran in terms of transferring weapons, it would provide a larger platform for projecting power and establishing an uninterrupted Iranian presence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. In that scenario, these countries will not be able to survive as independent and sovereign nations. Moreover, a strengthened Iranian presence along this corridor would add fire to the radical anti-Shiite narrative espoused by ISIS, exacerbating the area’s existing sectarian conflicts.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah’s control is much more definite. The route from the Lebanese-Syrian borders to the south of Lebanon via the Bekaa is mostly Hezbollah-controlled. Also, the state institutions are more or less under Hezbollah’s control, where only the Party of God can make significant security and military decisions.
Internally, Hezbollah has also been making major efforts to link Shiite areas to each other via tunnels and residential projects, where Shiites are being moved to Sunni and Christian towns. These residential projects are designed and built by Tajco, the company owned by Kassem Tajideen, recently captured in Morocco and handed over to the US for financing Hezbollah.
If one takes a closer look at Tajco’s projects in Lebanon, it will be obvious that Hezbollah is also involved in major demographic changes. Through these residential projects, Hezbollah can enjoy an unbroken Shiite corridor in Lebanon, as they constitute a perfect Shiite demographic link from the South to the Bekaa via West Bekaa, from the South to Beirut, and also from the Bekaa to the coast via the Druze Mountain, causing discontent among the populations and political other leaderships.
His company built a whole new village in Jezzine called “Al-Qatrani” and it links the south of Lebanon to both the Bekaa and the Druze Mountain. Tajco also built another residential project in Dalhamiyeh, which links the Druze Chouf district to the coastal road from Naame to Jiyye, both Sunni populated areas. He is also building projects in these Sunni coastal Sunni areas, as well as in Sunni coastal towns of Khalde, Jadra, Saadiyyat, and Wadi el Zayne, thereby linking the south to Beirut. To complete the link from the South to the Bekaa, this same company has been involved in a number of projects in West Bekaa, mainly in areas where the majority of population is Sunni or Christians.
These are not small projects. Some of them are a number of residential buildings, but some could take in more than five hundred Shiite families, who move from the South, Bekaa and Dahiye, because the price of a new apartment in these projects is cheaper than apartments elsewhere.
Residents in the towns where these projects are located have raised concerns about Hezbollah using these projects to enforce its military presence and also to recruit poor and unemployed Sunni and Christian young men into The Resistance Brigades, or the “Saraya Al Muqawama.”
The Resistance Brigades, created by Hezbollah in 1997, were supposed to mobilize non-Shiite Lebanese to support the Resistance. However, their role has changed since then. Today they are considered as an irregular paramilitary force loyal to Hezbollah and have been implicated in a number of security incidents in recent years, such as the events of May 7 2008, when Hezbollah and their allies stormed Beirut and Druze Mountains, and the clashes in Saida against Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir. According to Lebanese Interior Minister, the brigade has a 50,000 force and a domestic mission.
These demographic projects have been taking place in Lebanon for years, and this phenomenon precedes Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria. This means that this has been a working and successful strategy employed by Iran and its proxies and not new to Syria. However, it has more dangerous implications in Syria as it links all Shiite territories in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq together, thereby completing the Shiite crescent, without any interruption.
This Shiite crescent is going to be vulnerable to two factors: One, the Sunni majority in the region and its leadership are not going to accept such a Shiite platform of power, and two, Israel has been warning against Iran’s plan for regional hegemony and will also not accept a continuous Iranian military link from Tehran to the southern borders of Lebanon.
*Hanin Ghaddar is the Friedmann Visiting Fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy