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Diana Darke

The Iranification of Syria

Iranian flags are now being paraded at the Umayyad mosque in Damascus [Getty]

Date of publication: 14 July, 2015

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Iran's growing influence in Syria is visible in the streets, as the Syrian people remain helpless pawns on an international chessboard.

Iranian and Shia militia flags are now being paraded in the spiritual heart of Damascus, the magnificent Umayyad Mosque.

Iran's involvement in Syria used to be discreet but these days it is blatant.

The 'Iranification' of Syria is gathering pace, almost as if it is a race to seize as much as possible before its puppet Assad regime collapses.

Iran may be prepared to sacrifice chief puppeteer President Bashar al-Assad and his corrupt elite, but under no circumstances is it prepared to surrender its vast economic investment in Syria, or more precisely, in regime-controlled Damascus and the "Shia crescent" that links to the coast via Hizbullah heartlands in Lebanon.

The most recent manifestation of this open determination to control Syria's capital is the forced confiscation of hundreds of acres of land around the Iranian Embassy in the western suburb of Mezzeh.

Dubbed "Iranian Towers", the scheme is tantamount to changing the demographic of this entire neighbourhood of Damascus. Residents displaced by the eviction order, mainly Sunni families on low incomes, werer reportedly not offered compensation. Evidently the opinions of such people will count for nothing in the Syria of the future which Iran is seeking to engineer.

On my recent visit to Damascus to retake my house from war profiteers, Iranian influence was already evident behind the scenes.

Friends and neighbours in the Old City told me that CCTV cameras had been installed along Al-Amin Street, a Shia quarter, by Iran, and the only building projects underway were all known to be Iranian-funded.

Wealthy Iranians are also distorting the property market by buying up prestige homes in affluent areas including the Old City, especially near Shia shrines like Sayyida Rouqqaya. Among ordinary Damascene residents the strong perception is that Iran is increasingly pulling the strings behind the facade of the Assad regime: as the regime weakens, Iran is taking advantage.

     The 'Iranification' of Syria is gathering pace, as if it is a race to seize as much as possible before Assad's regime collapses.

Masquerading as religious affinity between Shia Iran and Alawi-ruled Syria, this relationship has never been anything other than a marriage of convenience. It began when Syria supported Iran in the Iran-Iraq War back in 1980 to spite Saddam Hussein. But these days the partnership has become so unequal it is more like a master/slave relationship, one of total dependence.

Since the 2011 Syrian uprising the Iranian government has been maintaining the Assad regime in power by supplying riot control equipment, intelligence monitoring techniques, snipers and oil to sustain its war activities.

Using experience honed during its own 2009 Green Revolution, Iran has developed the world's most sophisticated "cyber-army" technology in the world after China.

Assad's shabiha paramilitary forces were trained by Iranian militia, and General Qasim Sulaimani (commander of the Iranian clandestine Quds Force) personally masterminded Syrian military strategy and oversaw the creation of the volunteer reserve "National Defence Forces" (NDF) modelled on the Iranian basij paramilitary force.

In early June this year General Sulaimani deployed thousands of extra Iranian, Afghan and other foreign fighters round Damascus to protect the city after the Islamic State group's victories in Palmyra and Deir ez-Zour left it vulnerable.

Reports of the numbers range between 7,000 and 15,000. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has publicly announced Iran will support the Damascus regime "till the end of the road". He has not done this for ideological reasons, but because he knows the current weakness and dependence of the Syrian regime means Iran can secure political and strategic goals that had previously been out of reach.

With the announcement of the new nuclear deal and its accompanying sanctions relief, Iranian investment and wealth is set to soar. Iran has been described as the "world's largest untapped market" by British business guru Martin Sorrell and it boasts the world's third largest oil reserves. Already major oil companies have visited Tehran to discuss the future of Iran's oil industry.

Will Iran divert large amounts of this new wealth to fund its military activities in Syria, to protect its investment? Almost certainly, which makes it more and more likely that Iran will be enlisted by the P5+1 (the US, UK, France, Russia, China plus Germany) to fight IS, a common enemy to them all, inside Syria and to jettison Assad, but leaving Iran's investment in Syria intact.

It is almost certainly part of the deal. In this latest twist of the game, the Syrian people are again helpless pawns on the chessboard, with the big international players moving their pieces around to fit their own economic and political interests.

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