In the last few years, a new word has been added to the political vocabulary – “Syrianization.” This new word means turning a country into a land without a government, in the common sense of a burned, lawless land, every part of which is under the control of an armed mafia-type group.
Some of the leaders of the Islamic Republic, who are now shaken by the mass movement of the Iranian people, have been issuing warnings that Iran may also face a similar situation if instability spreads. In other words, our choice is limited to living or half-living under the rule of jurisprudential tyranny or falling into the second Syria.
But how did Syria itself become “Syrianized”? In the beginning, nearly 12 years ago, a group of Syrian youth came to the street in Daraa city to protest the continued atmosphere of political suffocation, the spread of unemployment and the darkness of their life horizons. This demonstration was completely peaceful. The protesters didn’t set fire to anything and didn’t shout any incendiary slogans. If Syria had a government in the conventional sense that day, the wise way to respond to these protests would be to send a delegation from the central government in Damascus to listen to the protesters and find ways to fulfill at least part of their demands.
But the government of Bashar al-Assad, the president, was not a normal government. This was a government monopolised by a military-security-commercial minority, which itself was a minority within the framework of the Alawite religious-sectarian minority, which is also a minority in Shia heterodox sects, which itself is also a minority in the Islamic religion. Thus, accepting the Daraa protesters as equal citizens was not acceptable for the regime in question.
In the political sphere of Assad and his Baath Arab Socialist Party, the government commands and the people – who are degraded to the level of subjects – obey. In this world, the answer to protest is bullets or prison.
However, the bloodbath that occurred in the valley did not end the protests. Within a few days, the Syrian people’s movement reached Hama, Aleppo, Sweida and Damascus. This time, some prominent figures of the Baathist regime demanded a political response to the protests in secret meetings with the regime leaders. But a regime that knows nothing but repression could not take advantage of the tools offered by politics to solve society’s problems and get out of crises.
At a critical stage in 2012, Bashar al-Assad thought to save the entire Baathist regime by leaving the scene. The mood of those days was described by Brigadier General Hossein Hamdani, one of the officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran who was sent to Syria, in a long conversation, a year before his death in Syria.
According to Hamadani, they packed their bags to leave in Damascus because at that time a part of the Syrian army had broken away from the Assad regime and hoped to conquer the capital by establishing the “Free Syrian Army.”
Although it can be said that Hamadani has exaggerated the importance of Tehran’s involvement, there is no doubt that the message of the leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to Bashar al-Assad was not ineffective in changing the opinion of the dictator of Damascus to leave the scene. Khamenei’s message was simple: stay and resist! We give whatever you want!
In the decade since that day, the Islamic Republic has spent more than 20 billion dollars in Syria, according to experts’ estimates. Tehran has also created several military units to fight for the benefit of Bashar al-Assad: the Fatemiyoun Brigade, the Zainbiyoun Brigade, and the units of the Morteza Ali movement belong to this category. Along with them, units from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, another branch of Khamenei’s proxy forces, have also fought in Syria. Iranian “volunteers,” who are called “defenders of the shrine,” have also been and are present alongside Syrian, Afghan, Pakistani and Iraqi fighters.
To add to the chaos in the country, Assad released more than 20,000 imprisoned Islamic “terrorists” to open a new front against the protesters. It was these freed terrorists who quickly participated in the establishment of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). At the same time, Assad promised the more than 1.5 million Kurds who had lost their Syrian citizenship that he would restore full citizenship to them. In this way, a part of the Syrian Kurds under the influence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose main base is in Turkey, entered the battle against the Syrian opposition groups.
But all these measures were unsuccessful in suppressing the Syrian people’s movement. In 2014, Tehran made contacts with Russia to push Vladimir Putin into war in Syria. These calls came to fruition and Putin assigned the Russian Air Force to operations in Syria. The price of this service to Bashar al-Assad was a 45-year contract according to which Russia obtained an air-sea base on the Syrian coast of the Mediterranean and was able to expand its military presence to that strategic sea for the first time after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Putin used the same tactic in Syria that he used in Chechnya: bombing cities across the country. Thus, Aleppo, the second most populated city in Syria, like Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, became a mountain of rubble.
Gradually, “Syrianization” was formed as a political-historical concept. Such destruction means widespread devastation in a country where half of its population has either become displaced and refugees or has become homeless within its own land. “Syrianization” means maintaining control of a part of the capital and fighting with dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of other armed groups across the country to formally recognise a regime that no longer exists. “Syrianization” also has another meaning: the division of two facts of a country into the sphere of influence of several foreign powers.
Right now, part of Syria is controlled by Turkey, while the other part is controlled by the United States under the guise of its Kurdish allies. A third part is controlled by Russia and the Islamic Republic has the fourth part in the desert bordering Iraq. The fifth sector is also dominated by Druze armed forces with the help of Jordan. Bashar al-Assad and what he calls himself the Syrian government are displaying their shadow legitimacy in a sixth section in Damascus.
But another actor has played a role in this ominous show: the leadership of the Syrian people’s protest movement. This leadership was never able to present a clear strategy to gain power. This leadership lured the Western powers with mouth-watering promises and thought its task was done by taking pictures with the French president and receiving a message from the US Secretary of State. Its endless seminars in more than 30 capitals, from Tokyo to Ottawa, took it far away from where the real political work is done: in the cities and villages of Syria. A group of exiled figures who had been around Syria for years suddenly came under the global spotlight as the future leaders. Their work was consecutive interviews with Western media, often in suites of 5-star hotels in Paris, London, New York, etc. It is interesting here that many of the leaders of the Ba’athist regime who were cut off from Bashar al-Assad joined this leadership in order to compensate for their lost political virginity and to take a share if there is a reconciliation.
Syrianization should be considered a new type of tragicomedy of human societies in which hundreds of thousands –if not millions – of idealistic, sincere and selfless people come to the field to overthrow an autocratic and corrupt system, hoping to build a free and law-based society and justice. But, in the end, they are reduced to the level of a tool for the profit of the alleged leaders on the one hand and the battle of foreign powers on the other.
This Syrianization could not have become a reality without Bashar al-Assad, Ali Khamenei, Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama and the ignorant or profit-seeking leaders of the popular movement. Today, Syria, this stateless land, is a breeding ground for the worst elements that threaten a modern society: various terrorists, looters, commercial and religious mafias and mercenaries. To rebuild this ruined country, more than three trillion dollars of capital is needed, a capital that will never be collected without the establishment of a government in its normal sense. In this way, Syria is faced with the question of the chicken or the egg: does the capital come first or the normally functioning government?
Let’s go back to the propaganda of Khamenei and his accomplices about the “Syrianization” of Iran. At first glance, the presence of some agents of Syrianization, including Khamenei himself and his mentor Putin, and a part of the Revolutionary Guards and mercenaries of the Islamic Republic in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, makes the danger of Syrianizing Iran appear serious.
But several important factors, I think, protect Iran against the risk of becoming Syrianized. The first factor is the deep roots of Iran as a nation. Before 1948, Syria never existed as an independent nation-state and was always a collection of ethnic, geographical and cultural entities within the framework of various empires from Chaldea and Assyria to Rome, Byzantium, the Ottoman empire and finally, France. On the other hand, Iran has passed through the crucibles of the constitutional movement and has become familiar with the concept of freedom within the framework of law during 150 years, although intermittently, before Ayatollah Khomeini took office. The role of the institution of the Kingdom of Iran in strengthening the national solidarity of Iranians cannot be ignored either.
Most importantly, the current movement of the Iranian people, unlike the protest movement of the Syrian people, which had a religious undertone – with the strong presence of the Muslim Brotherhood – does not have a religious or sectarian aspect, and is a movement that goes beyond religious, professional and ethnic identities. This movement, instead, demands a return to the path of constitutionalism. It means creating a society based on the law and serving the citizens.
In recent months, the field leaders of this movement have displayed an encouraging maturity and political tact and have shown that, unlike the Syrian protesters, they are not waiting for a “green light” from Paris, London and Washington DC. Thus, those who want to help this movement must enter into the game with the conditions and regulations of this movement, not to impose their own conditions and regulations on it.
Today, Iran seeks to end the rule of Syria-builders like Khamenei. Those who have played a role in Syrianizing Syria cannot scare us from becoming Syrian.