Sunni activist says Iran behind ‘demographic change’ in Damascus

The Syrian regime put its longtime National Security Bureau chief Ali Mamlouk under house arrest for planning a coup against the Assad regime, the Daily Telegraph reported on Monday [Syria scholar Joshua Landis questioned the report; regime official media has not commented].

The Telegraph's report is the latest in a “regime is crumbling” narrative in the Western media, with the growing role of Iran in Syria at its center. Mamlouk was concerned that Syria was “giving sovereignty up to Iran,” an unnamed source was quoted by the Telegraph as saying.

How much control does Iran really wield in Syria? It depends whom you ask.

Here, we ask an exiled Sunni public figure who founded the informal “Umayyad Capital Won't Be Persian” campaign, a dog whistle reference harking back to a Sunni-led Islamic empire.

“Know, O Honorable Syrian, that you are today stationed on the front whatever your position and place, so do not give up your land or house, and know that the sale of your house to the Iranian occupier...is like one who sells his honor, and he will answer to God,” Khalil Muqdad wrote in an article announcing the start of the campaign published in February on pro-opposition Soryoon.

Muqdad, also the vice-president of the Syrian Rescue Authority, a revolutionary body that coordinates political and media opposition activity, says Iran and Hezbollah are flooding the Syrian capital with Shiites. He calls it the “Shiization of Damascus,” by sending in “foreign” Shiite students, soldiers and their families to live, work and purchase property in the Syrian capital. 

“Citizen testimony proves, beyond a doubt, that the regime has adopted a systematic policy of emptying Damascus of [Sunni] residents,” Muqdad tells Ghalia al-Muhkalalati.

“What is happening in Damascus and Syria is an extremely dangerous matter that touches the very Sunni Arab existence.”

We at Syria Direct debated about whether or not to run an interview with such overt sectarian undertones. Last week’s verbal slugfest on Al-Jazeera’s “The Opposite Direction” with Syrian host Faisal al-Qasem on “The Fate of Syria's Alawites after the Rebels Have Approached their Areas” is only one recent example. The balance tipped in favor of informing the public about a viewpoint not uncommon among Syrians today.

Q: What are some of the Shiite sights (clothing, parades, signs, etc.) that have shown up recently in Damascus?

Damascenes had been accustomed to seeing Shiite sights confined to places where Shiites lived, like Sayeda Zeinab and the neighborhood of Zein al-Abadin, and to a smaller degree inside their mosques and houses.

But beginning three years ago and up until today, with the knowledge and support of the regime, Shiite sights have become more open. They include  the spread of black flags [in Twelver Shiism, the black flag is a symbol of the return of the Mahdi], and Hezbollah flags in the city, as it happened recently in the [Christian] Bab Touma Square that was covered in black.

There is also the distribution of pamphlets detailing the good deeds of whom they call the “Leader of the Resistance,” Abbas al-Musawi. [Abbas al-Musawi was the second secretary general of Hezbollah, killed by the Israeli army in 1992. For an alleged copy of the distributed pamphlets see pro-opposition al-Souria here].

Add to that scenes of self-harm, even in the courtyards of the Umayyid Mosque, and the open cursing of the Companions of the Prophet. You've also got Shiite religious songs that deal with fighting the Sunnis, whom they call Nawasib, something that's become totally normal in Damascus [Nawasib is a derogatory term for those who act hostilely towards the founder of Shiism Ali ibn Abi Talib and his family].

To say nothing of the sheer number of checkpoints manned by Hezbollah inside the city. Their fighters wear yellow headbands, which have Hezbollah written on them. They play sectarian songs from the cars, so loud as to be provocative, rushing through the city streets without any regard for traffic laws or pedestrians.

A student at the University of Damascus told me, “we used to suffer from discrimination in favor of the Alawites. Now the [foreign] Shiites have appeared. They receive the best administrative positions and appealing salaries, in addition to the fact that they carry security identity cards and weapons. They distribute books and CDs, and everything pertaining to the Shiite doctrine.”

Syrian official media [SANA] has even opened a Farsi branch, which points to a change in the political and media discourse towards Shiization, and Persianization at the expense of Arabic.

 Sunni activist says Iran behind ‘demographic change’ in Damascus. Photo courtesy of Jasim al-Jabri.

Q: What about the appropriation of land or buildings?

[In July 2012]  the regime issued a new law [the Counter-Terrorism Law] that  allows for the confiscation of property from those considered supporters of terrorism, those who fled the country out of fear of the security forces [see explanation of the law on pro-regime DPNews here, and a Human Rights Watch report on its abuses here].

Take, for example, the appropriation of the house of pro-opposition figures Faisal al-Qasem, Tawfeeq al-Halaq, Ala Abbas, Mai Skaf and many others [for a CNN article on Failal al-Qassem's house being turned into a military barracks, see here] . Their houses were appropriated and distributed to Alawite officers and Hezbollah and Iranian leadership figures, who have also started to carry Syrian identity cards in addition to Lebanese, Iraqi and Iranian identity cards.

Also, some empty houses have been taken over, those whose residents left them fleeing from the war. Fighters from Iran and Hezbollah have been housed in them. Several cases have been documented in al-Maidan, Abu Rumaneh, Kafr Susa and other neighborhoods within the security perimeter of Damascus.

The closest example would be the Iranian embassy on the Mezza highway. The embassy took control of a large amount of land in the area. They built a huge structure and raised the Iranian flag on top. The embassy compound now encompasses more than 20 dunams.

The embassy is close to the compound that includes the Parliament [Majlis a-Shaab] and the ministries of the exterior and interior. The Iranian embassy bought the land from the state, which issued laws allowing the appropriation of land owned by Mezza residents, who have not been compensated until now. 

Q: Is anyone recording the extent of the spread of the Shiites in Damascus?

As for the number of properties [that have changed hands], there are no precise numbers, considering the regime keeps a tight lid on these matters. But there have been huge sales of private properties in old Damascus, in which the residents sell the building because they want to, or because of harassment, or because of a fire that is always explained by crossed electrical wires.

Q: In your opinion, what are the goals of the Shiites who settle in Damascus?

The Shiite involvement is similar to the Alawite involvement. The regime tied the Alawites’ destiny with its own continued existence.

What's happening today is the execution of an ancient dream for Persian influence to return to the region. According to some Shiite beliefs, this will bring about the appearance of the Hidden Mahdi.

Q: Do Iran and Hezbollah appear to be complicit in the settlement of Shiites in Damascus?

The settling of Shiites in Damascus and other Syrian cities has been proven with facts on the ground, even if it's difficult to monitor the phenomenon precisely, considering the regime keeps a tight lid on it.

Citizen testimony proves, beyond a doubt, that the regime has adopted a systematic policy of emptying Damascus of residents. We can summarize this plan with several points:

1)      The newspaper Al-Baath, which is loyal to the Syrian regime, wrote in May 2014 that the president of the Rent Commission of the Syrian Ministry of Justice, Kamal Juniat, said: “Research is still ongoing concerning opening safe, closed-off houses in order to lighten the pressure on many Syrians who have been displaced and had their homes destroyed. These houses will be rented at rates determined by the Commission, and the rents will be kept in a special fund to be given to the owners when they return.”

2)     Closing the city's doors in the face of people from the Damascus countryside. A number of people in the countryside, which has essentially become a series of cities that have absorbed the residential explosion from the capital, have Damascene roots.

3)     Expelling residents of the Damascus countryside from houses they are living in inside the capital. Anyone whose rental contract doesn't cover more than a year is subject to expulsion.

4)     Renewing a rental is connected with security approval...at that point, the security forces look into the security record of the renter.

5)     Citizens are prevented from conducting any repairs inside their homes without prior agreement [from the state], even if they are the original owners of the house.

6)     If the house is empty of its residents, friends and relatives are prohibited from living there. If the house is rented, the first term on the contract is security approval, i.e., theychoose those who are pro-regime, who enjoy a totally clean security record.

7)     After operations aimed at emptying houses of their owners and residents, regime forces and Alawites take ownership of the house through several means. Most importantly, by using the fourth item in the Anti-Terrorism Law, the court issues a decision that freezes the assets of anyone who opposes the regime [for an explanation of the law and article four, see pro-regime DPNews here]. As for the second method, that involves buying the house after turning the residents' lives into a living hell. The third method is called “mandatory bartering.”

Q: How have Damascenes reacted to this phenomenon? 

Damascenes today are lost, scared and scattered. The regime has worked to split up the city.

Damascenes know what's going on, but they can't oppose it, or even grumble because of the severe security grip over the city, and because of the state of isolation and constraints the regime has imposed.

A friend of mine was traveling and returned to Damascus. He told me, “I no longer recognized people there. It's like they're drugged; they try to ignore what's going on around them and live their lives and dream of a better future. The only thing that matters to them is the fight for survival, or emigration, or staying out of prison.”

On the inside Damascenes want salvation. Their city is Umayyad [ed.: read Sunni], and they have coexisted with the Shiite minority. What's happening today is unacceptable as far as they're concerned, but they're unable to speak openly, not even to their closest relatives.

Q: What's the goal of the campaign you're working on, “The Capital is Umayyad, It Won't Be Persian”?

The campaign aims to awake Syrians from the state of negligence that they're living in; to make them aware of the danger of Shiite expansion in causing a large demographic change by expelling the Sunnis and replacing them with foreign Shiites.

The campaign also calls on the residents of Damascus, and Syrians generally, not to sell their houses to Shiites, and to do as much as possible to preserve the city's Arab identity. We ask them to let their children and grandchildren inherit their houses, for what is happening in Damascus and Syria is an extremely dangerous matter that touches the very Sunni Arab existence.

For those who don't know—Iran has bought up all the hotels in the al-Bahsa area in Damascus, located around the Iranian cultural center, and owns the Samiramis hotel near the Victoria Bridge, in addition to controlling half of old Damascus in the area stretching from behind the Ummayid University up until Bab Touma, including the hotels, restaurants, and Greek, Christian, Islamic and Mamluk ruins inside.

Ghalia Muhkalalati

Ghalia Muhkhalalati holds a degree in computer science, where she attained the third highest grade in Syria for her year. She worked as a private teacher for displaced persons when the revolution began and arrived in Jordan in 2013.

Dan Wilkofsky

Dan Wilkofsky was a 2013-2014 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) in Amman, Jordan, where he worked with Talal Abu Ghazaleh Translation and the Ministry of Social Development. He has a BA in Classics (Latin) and Middle East Studies from Brown University.