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Iran’s Soft War in Syria: Exerting Influence Through Arts and Education

February 17, 2020
Dana Saqbani
15 min read
The Mahdi Scouts in Syria commemorating Ashura, October 22, 2019
The Mahdi Scouts in Syria commemorating Ashura, October 22, 2019

At the end of January, the Syrian regime's Ministry of Education and the Iranian Ministry of Education signed a memorandum of understanding to exchange expertise and experiences within the scientific, academic, and educational fields. This comes in addition to the list of joint cooperation projects and memoranda of understanding already in place between the two countries. 

The recent Syrian-Iranian agreement and the technical and engineering services it will provide for, in addition to the school renovations it will implement, will contribute to the development of education in both countries, as well as provide for the regime’s eagerness to re-establish schools in areas "liberated from terrorism," develop a scientific research system, and provide for various vocational education requirements. Most recently, the two governments came to 11 agreements in educational, cultural, service, economic, and other fields, including educational projects under the title "pre-university education," cinematic projects, and others.

These activites are not new. Iranian attempts to extend and develop Shia centers by way of its embassies have been ongoing since the 1980s, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Indeed, the distinctive relationship between the Syrian regime and Iran has led Syria to become the most prominent outpost of Iranian activity in recent years.

Syrian-Iranian memoranda of understanding are published on official news agency websites, but on the ground, according to the Rawabet Center for Research and Strategic Studies, the establishment of Husseiniyas [Twelver Shia congregation halls], Persian language publishing, and other activities are being put in place across the Syrian governorates. Iran has been working to attract loyal sectarian and economic elements to support this effort since its first day in Syria, taking advantage of the difficult situation in the country, and knowing that any future new government in Damascus will prefer "to disconnect from Tehran, at least ideologically,according to the Rawabet Center.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Majid, an Iranian affairs researcher at the Iram Center of Iranian Studies, confirmed this to IranWire, explaining that any serious change in the structure of the regime might topple the Iranian network in Syria, as it is a network based on interests and benefits, not ideology. This is especially so as the Iraqi and Lebanese uprisings have proven that Iran does not have a popular base in the region, even among Arab Shias themselves. So what will happen to new Shia converts in Syria?


How Active is Iran Across Syria? 

Iranian activities are varied across Syria, and include educational and cultural initiatives.


Education in Schools

Before the revolution, there were more than 40 private Shia schools in Damascus alone, spread across Shia congregation areas, according to the Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies. These included about 10 secondary schools affiliated to the Ministry of Religious Endowments and recognized by the Ministry of Education in Damascus, Aleppo, Lattakia, Idlib, and Deir Al-Zour, the most famous of which was the Al-Muhsiniya School, supervised by Abdullah Nizam. According to the center, the school preaches to Sunni students and provides financial facilities to those who convert to Shia Islam.

In 2014, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad issued a decree for the teaching of Shiism in Syrian schools alongside Sunnism, in addition to opening the first Shia school in the country under the name "The Great Messenger" in the same year.

The Great Messenger School has several branches in Syria, including in Al-Qardahah, Lattakia, and Ras Al-Ayn, and defines itself as "a religious school that started teaching in 2014, which aims to teach literature, science, and a love of the nation and its leader." On its Facebook page, it mostly publishes religious publications attributed to Ali bin Abi Talib [the son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Muhammad].


Higher Education in Damascus and Hama


In 2005, said Dr Abdul Majid, Iran "succeeded, by way of its embassy and cultural advisory office, in opening the first Persian language department at the University of Damascus, followed by the universities of Homs and Aleppo. It also teaches Persian at Tishreen University and at its branch in Tartous and at Al-Furat University in Deir Al-Zour.”

In 2007, the Ministry of Higher Education in Syria and the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Research in Iran agreed to establish the Al-Farabi University.

Two years later, the Minister of Higher Education in Syria, Ghiath Barakat, and the president of the Iranian Al-Mustafa University, Ali Reza Al-Aarafi, discussed academic cooperation in higher education and scientific research.

The College of Islamic Studies, which is located in the city of Damascus, and which has three additional branches in Idlib, Al-Raqqa, and Tartous, gives each student SYP 5,000 (US$23) per month, according to information provided by a student who tried to register at the university in 2008 and who was in touch with IranWire. The student added that the college does not have a specific name, teaches the jurisprudence of the Jafari school of thought and Twelver Shiite fundamentals in a building separate from the College of Sharia, and that he was invited to register there, lured by a stipend that was equivalent to $100 at the time.

In 2011, following a decree issued by President Bashar Al-Assad, the Ministry of Higher Education recognized the Sayyida Ruqaya College for the Teaching of Shiite Sharia Sciences operating under the name the Higher Levant Institute, and also including Al-Fatah College and Ahmad Kaftaru College, which taught Sunni Sharia sciences. All were linked to the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which would come to be known as the University of the Levant for Sharia Sciences following a presidential decree.

In recent years, the University of Damascus has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Islamic Azad University, in addition to establishing the College of Islamic Schools of Thought in the capital Damascus, through cooperation between the International Academy for the Rapprochement of Iranian Sects and the Syrian Ministry of Religious Endowments.

In 2018, the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology in Iran hoped to establish a branch of the University of Education in Syria, with the aim of training university professors. It also had aspirations for sustainable follow-up between the two parties, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency [IRNA].



In 2018, the University of Hama signed three agreements with Iranian universities: Ferdowsi University of Mashhad, Amirkabir University of Technology, and Alzahra University, which it said was "a female-only institute."

These agreements were described by the president of the University, Muhammad Ziyad Sultan, to Al-Watan newspaper as a “precedent,” noting that the agreements were also broad, meaning they are subject to amendment and expansion, allowing academic exchange for students and professors.

Affiliates of these universities also gained several privileges, including scholarships to complete postgraduate studies in Iran.


Cultural Centers

The Cultural Advisory Center

The number of Persian language courses at the headquarters of the Iranian Cultural Advisory in the capital, Damascus, has reached 100.

Persian language courses are regularly available at the Damascus center next to the Yalbagha Mosque in Al-Marjeh Square, near the Iranian Library, but they are not free of charge, according to information obtained by IranWire from private sources. A course costs around SYP 8500 (about $40), and runs three days a week for two months, with the Persian language studies concluding upon completion of eight levels.

IranWire was told that five years ago educational courses, seminars, and various activities, including theater, were available in Syria, but following the "crisis," — as an employee at the center described it — activities have been limited to the teaching of the Persian language only.

"Getting inside the center is difficult,” the source said. Everything is blocked off and tight security prevents you from entering. You can only inquire from outside at the inquiry kiosk. If you become a student at the center, then you can enter."

Through its website, the center publishes an online Islamic cultural magazine on a quarterly basis, and had published 131 issues as of January 2020.

In Lattakia, where there is another branch of the Iranian Cultural Advisory Center, there are 52 language teaching courses, and the center is accredited to teach courses and curricula from the Bonyad Saadi Foundation in Iran. Teachers at Tishreen University use films, voice clips, and conversations as part of their teaching.

Through its branches in Damascus and Lattakia, and alongside its Persian language teaching, it also offers what it calls "Persian Language Lover" sessions held once every two weeks, in which competitors read poetry and literary texts, in addition to translating various texts, such as proverbs and sayings, as well as putting on plays and competitions. The "Persian Language Lover" sessions are distinguished by the introductions they provide about traditional events in Iran, such as the winter solstice known as "Shab Yilda."


The Imam Mahdi Center

The Imam Mahdi Center's main headquarters is located in the town of Sayyida Zainab, east of the capital, Damascus, and managed by Mahmoud Nawaf Al-Aday, who identifies himself on his official Facebook page as the "head of the Imam Mahdi Centers, peace be upon him, for general culture, established media, social and humanitarian services, and religious education."

Al-Aday's work goes beyond that of the Sayyida Zainab center, and he travels between the capital, Damascus, the surrounding countryside, and other Syrian governorates.

The cultural center's activities include giving cards of thanks and appreciation to military, national, and civil leaders, in addition to participating in religious festivals and holding wakes for fallen fighters.


The Mahdi Scouts

The Mahdi Scouts target boys and girls separately, from children to teens. Its centers are spread across several governorates in Syria, and the lead centers are in Sayyida Zainab in the countryside of Damascus, and in Homs and Deir Al-Zour.

The centers include cultural, sporting, artistic, voluntary, development, and educational activities, as well as Koranic recitation, according to its published announcement that registration was open in the city of Deir Al-Zour.

The Mahdi Scouts have existed in Syria since 2014, according to the Harmoon Center, which said that most of the scouts’ activities try to instil cultural and religious concepts in children, in addition to the use of phrases glorifying the Iranian revolution.

The Mahdi Scouts were established in Lebanon in 1985 and are directly affiliated to Hezbollah, the goal of which is to establish an Islamic generation according to the perception of Wilayat al-Faqih, as per the Lebanese Southern website.

In its study, the Harmoon Center stated that the State Scouts in Syria, in addition to the Imam Al Mahdi Association, is funded by the Cultural Advisory Center in Damascus, "which in turn owns the so-called Euphrates Association for Peace and Social Harmony, considered the intermediary body funding all local activities, while also taking into account Iran's interests in Syria."

On the surface, the scouts' activities appear to include presentations, as well as recreational and social trips and the like; however, its actual activities are somewhat unusual and unconventional for children, and are more like organized brainwashing, including: cultivating the importance of taking revenge for Hussein; the wearing of military clothing; and their training sports similar to those that soldiers in military units undertake. They have also carried the flags of Iran and Khamenei on marches and Husseiniya processions on multiple occasions.

One of the relatives of a child in the scouts told IranWire: "The striking thing about the Mahdi Scouts is that they do camps similar to military training. They take the children for several days so that they return physically charged, becoming more attached to the activities every time they go."


State Scouts, Syria

October 8, 2019

“The goodness of the granddaughter of Al-Mustafa [Prophet Muhammad], how great she was,

To her must we bow and fall to her highborn glory

An orphan of the Levant, a thousand salutations

To you, my heart utters its affection

On the occasion of the martyrdom of our Lady Ruqayya, daughter of Imam Hussein (peace be upon them)”


Memorial Ceremony for Ghasem Soleimani

It is worth noting the memorial ceremonies that took place in Syrian governorates following the killing of the Quds Force Commander, Ghasem Soleimani.

The Iranian Embassy in Damascus organized a wake for Soleimani, attended by official  Syrian, Palestinian, Lebanese, and Arab parliamentary figures, as well as a number of ambassadors and Arab representatives present in Damascus.

The Syrian Ministry of Defence also held a memorial service for Soleimani at the Al-Assad Library in the center of the capital in the presence of the Iranian ambassador and religious and political figures.

In the Husseiniya in the Zain Al-Abidin neighborhood of Damascus, a Khamenei representative attended the memorial ceremony, according to the website of Imam Khamenei's office in Syria.

Furthermore, a wake was held at the Sayyida Zainab shrine near the capital.

The Iranian Cultural Advisory Center in Lattakia saw large scale attendance at the "Master of Resistance Martyrs" memorial ceremony, as the center described it, including a large number of representatives from military, political, and cultural units and groups in the city.

At the wake, the phrase "those who love martyrdom do not fear death" could be heard in reference to Soleimani and those like him. 

A memorial service was also held in the presence of military and political figures in Homs, in cooperation with the Friends of the Islamic Republic; in Aleppo, at the Al-Mashhad Mosque, where the Imam Hussein Mashhad Complex held services for three days; and in Deir Al-Zour, where Iranian fighting forces held a wake at the cultural center in the city.

There are many other similar activities in the majority of Syria's governorates. IranWire research indicates that activities and active groups can be found in Homs, Tartous, Banias and Al-Qardahah. However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights clarified that cultural centers, husseiniyas, and hawzas [Shia Muslim seminaries] operate independently away from the interference of Syrian ministries, although they are directly affiliated to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in Iran.



According to a Syrian Observatory report, there were around 500 husseiniyas and 69 Shia hawzas as of mid-2019.

According to Harmoon, a hawza is a center for the study of the fundamentals of jurisprudence and hadith, and the education of preachers in Islamic law, while shrines constitute religious, scientific, political, and military centers for Shiites. Twelver Shiites visit this shrine, an activity that holds the status of the Hajj pilgrimage for them. According to the book Sights and Shrines of the Family of the Prophet, Peace Be Upon Them, in Syria by Hashim Uthman, there are 49 shrines in Damascus, Aleppo, Lattakia, Hama, Homs, and the Syrian northeast.

A resident of the city of Deir Al-Zour told IranWire: "Husseiniyas and hawzas have turned into activity and relief centers, as well as places to hold religious and preaching courses. They are located in central Deir Al-Zour Governorate, Hatlah, Marrat, and Ayn Ali in the countryside of Al-Mayadin."

In Daraa, one IranWire correspondent gave the following account: "There is a Husseiniya in Qarfa that holds various activities, in addition to several in Sayyida Zainab in the Damascus countryside, such as the Academic Al-Zainabiya Husseiniya, the Al-Zahra Husseiniya, and the Pakistani and Indian Husseiniyas, the activities of which focus on religious ceremonies, lectures, and outreach classes."

Regarding the Al-Quneitra Husseiniya, the correspondent confirmed that its construction was completed in 2018, and every three months it sends a religious trip to Sayyida Zainab in the Damascus countryside, the expenses of which are borne by the Husseiniya. Its activities, however, are not publicized.


Conversion to Shia Islam

In light of Shia social and cultural activities, with financial generosity and the continuous fostering of religious and sectarian connections, around 7500 people from the south and east of Syria have converted to Shia Islam, according to figures provided by the Syrian Observatory as of the end of 2019.

All converts receive monthly stipends, which differ from one region to another, in addition to food and living and educational supplies, with the same given to those who volunteer among the Iranian ranks.

Shiism has become a necessity for the people residing in the east of Syria, as Iran controls the entire region, and is trying to revive any form of shrine, even if it is Sufi, for which they create myths and stories in order to solidify their presence there. It is clear what Iran is planning. Its impact will not be felt now, but in the future, according a journalist IranWire talked to in the city, who asked to remain anonymous.

Another journalist, Yasir Allawi Al-Mani, spoke to IranWire about Iran in Syria: "Despite Iran's Shiite conversion work in the eastern region, its activity in the west of Syria has become clearer and more intense, working to focus its activities in Damascus, Homs, and Lattakia in particular, and this explains the existence of Iranian culture centers in such places."


The Other Side of Iranian Activities

At a time when the Islamic Republic of Iran is trying to enter into deals with the Syrian regime to develop and modernize its educational process, the most recent visit sparked widespread controversy among activists in the Iranian Teachers Union. 

IranWire has published widely on teachers’ activism. One recent article published in Arabic reported:  "On 18 January, the Mayor of Tehran, Pirouz Hanachi, announced that of 2,888 schools that were evaluated in the capital in for safety, 827 schools crossed red lines” — in other words, they did not meet safety standards.

On the same day, the president of Tehran City Council, Mohsen Hashemi, stated that there are 4,000 schools in Tehran, and that between 60 percent and 70 percent of them are not performing to acceptable standards. "The government is suffering from a financial crisis, and for this reason it is tightening its grip on spending in Tehran ... There are 50 judicial rulings to demolish unsafe and dilapidated schools and for them to be rebuilt."

The Washington Post published an article about Iranian school textbooks and the sectarianism they reinforce. Overall, though, textbooks tend to be sharply nationalist and focus on an Iranian Shia identity.

In a study entitled Iranian Education Continues the Revolution, the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace stated that the curricula of Iranian textbooks are based on the teachings of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, and that they instill in students a hatred of the West. Iranian scientist Tahira Kagdachi also pointed out shortcomings in the Iranian educational system, and accused it of destroying talent.

Iran is attempting to extend several educational privileges to Syrian students, even if they are not among the most outstanding, according to IranWire’s correspondent. It is worth noting that on February 4, 2020, Mansour Ghulami, the Iranian Minister of Science and Research, stressed that attracting foreign students is one of the priorities of the country’s educational centers. In this way, these centers focus on increasing the acceptance of foreign students in order to strengthen cultural exchange with countries in the region.




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