11/09/2006, 00.00
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Iran, Syria's new master

Syria's institutions are being packed more and more with pro-Tehran officials. Syria's political isolation and Iranian mullahs' activism are behind this process of "Iranianisation".

Rome (AsiaNews) – Syria is undergoing a process of Iranianisation. Not only has it signed a defence pact with Iran, but Iranian banks and companies are investing in the Arab country, "religious" officials are replacing non religious ones, Iranian TV is available in every home, Iranian Revolutionary Guards are now insuring President Assad's security, more and more women are wearing the hijab and conversions to Shia Islam are mounting. The reason for all this are Syria's increasing international isolation and Iran's activism, according to Amir Taheri, an Iranian writer and journalist now living in the United States. In an article published in New York Post titled "How Iran became Syria's master", he examines this trend.

Although a Tehran-Damascus axis was first formed as far back as 1980 when Iraq invaded Iran, then President Hafez al-Assad was careful not to be totally dependent on Iran keeping channels of communication with the US open. He also upheld secular rule under his party, the Baa'th, an Arab version of National Socialism and was also ruthless when it came to Islamist threats, not shying away from massacring thousands of people. In Lebanon he insisted on having his own Lebanese Shia client in the form of Nabih Berri's Amal Movement against pro-Iranian Hezbollah.

Significantly, under Assad père the Syrians refused Iranian demands that women be kept out of official ceremonies attended by visiting Iranian officials, or that no alcohol be served on such occasions.

Now things appear radically different. There are signs that the Islamic Republic is determined to export its ideology to Syria, drive the US out of the Middle East, wipe Israel off the map and create a new Islamic "superpower" with Iran as its core.

The first phase of this strategy involved casting suspicion on elements in the Syrian Baa'th party known for opposing Khomeinism. Hundreds of Baa'thist cadres, including senior figures, were retired or driven into exile and replaced with officials with "better Islamic sensibilities", many of whom had served in Iran in diplomatic, military and intelligence capacities on behalf of their government.

Yet Assad fils's purge has increased his vulnerability to conspiracies by purged officials, some of whom have joined the regime's opponents, and this in turn has increased his reliance on Iranian security. Sources in Damascus claim that Iranian Revolutionary Guards have assigned special units to protect Assad against any domestic enemies.

Why this? Because Tehran has successfully exploited fears that Syria may be a target for US "regime change" and take advantage of its estrangement from other Arab states after the 2005 murder of former Lebanese Premier Rafiq Hariri—widely thought to be Syria's work. The net result has been that last June isolated Syria did what it had not done even during its Soviet alliance; it signed a defence pact with the Islamic Republic.

Among other things, this agreement gives Iran direct access to Syria's military at middle and senior levels. There has been in fact a fourfold increase in the number of Iranian military and security personnel in Syria. Several other developments confirm this trend:

·        Iran has increased scholarships for Syrians, including for military training, from 200 in 2001 to 3,000-plus this year.

·        The ban on Iranian cultural centres outside Damascus has been lifted. By last September a total of 17,000 Syrians had enrolled in classes to learn Persian and study the "philosophy of Imam Khomeini".

·        Hundreds of Iranian companies are active in Syria, employing tens of thousands of people in a country with mass unemployment. This year the Islamic Republic is expected to become Syria's second largest trading partner after the European Union.

·        Syria has agreed to raise the number of Iranian pilgrims visiting the Zeynabiah Shia holy shrine near Damascus from 150 to 1,000 a day.

·        Iranian TV and radio networks, broadcasting in Arabic, are now available in every Syrian home. Other non-Syrian Arabic media are banned.

·        Assad has granted 41 Iran-based charities the right to operate in Syria. These use the model used by Hezbollah and Hamas providing services such as clinics, schools and interest-free loan agencies.

·        Women who agree to wear Khomeinist-style hijabs and men who grow Khomeinist-style beards receive cash gifts and preferential treatment in getting jobs with hundreds of Iranian companies operating in Syria.

·        Syria has also lifted the ban on Shia proselytising, allowing hundreds of Iranian mullahs to convert Syrian Sunnis to Shiism. There are also reports of mass conversions of members of Assad's own Alawi sect to Iranian duodecimain Shiism.

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