Iran has been sending thousands of troops to Syria since the war broke out in 2011 and has been supporting extremist Shiite groups like Hezbollah. Playing the sectarianism card to keep relations tight with Shiite minorities and armed groups across the world, the Tehran administration has gone into a deadly war against civilians not only in Syria but also in Iraq by giving unconditional support to Hashdi al-Shaabi militants who are infamous for their brutal acts against Iraq’s civil Sunni citizens. Iran has also been promoting Shiite Islam in Africa and Asia in order to create its own communities, as has happened in Nigeria. It is obvious that Iran uses sectarianism as an instrument to establish its political influence, which is followed by economic gains.
The former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards intelligence and head of Ammar Garrison Mehdi Taeb’s words, said in 2013, show the reality. “Syria is the 35th province [of Iran] and a strategic one for us. If the enemy attacks us and wants to appropriate either Syria or Khuzestan [in southern Iran], our priority is to keep Syria.” Since 2013, Iran has increased its military presence in Syria and deployed hundreds of its special operation troops, besides militants. It is claimed that Iran has been collecting young people from poor countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and India with the promise of granting citizenship. According to a report, entitled “How Iran Fuels Syria War” published by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) said, “non-Iranian mercenaries number around 55,000 men, Iraqi militias are around 20,000 men, Afghan militias are approximately 15,000 to 20,000 men, Lebanese Hezbollah are around 7,000 to 10,000 men, and Pakistani, Palestinian and other militiamen number approximately 5,000 to 7,000. The Tehran regime spends $1 billion annually in Syria solely on the salaries of the forces affiliated with the IRGC, including military forces, militias, and Shiite networks,” the report said.
Last year Daily Sabah reported how these Iran-backed non-Syrian people displaced local people. “A Syrian refugee, In’am, who asked for her surname to remain anonymous due to security issues, who left her town near Damascus for Istanbul, said, ‘We have no chance to go back even after the war ends.’ She said, ‘Our homes were given to Iranian troops by the regime. They have come to the town, displaced us and have been using our homes, cars and everything’,” the report said.
The Middle East, which has been an area of sectarian conflict since the early years of Islam yet remained relatively calm under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, has been dragged into a new sectarian wave as anachronistic disputes have been triggered by regional powers with the intention of expanding their influence. Iran, which has a centralized Shiite version of Islam, has entered into a competition with other regional actors, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia over the region by applying sectarian policies from which the people of the region suffer. Being far from the mainstream Islamic understanding that is in effect from Indonesia to Senegal, the country has been following expansionist policies. Iran has adopted the policy of leading and uniting the Shiite communities in different Arab countries, including Iraq and Yemen, following the revolution in 1979.
Iran has been holding the flag of sectarianism and using the centuries-old conflicts, narratives and Islamic interpretations as a cloak for its struggle for power. Tehran’s involvement in the war in Syria and in the conflict in Iraq through its alliance with Russia has diminished the stability and path to peace in the region. The so-called “Arab Spring” that started in Tunisia and euphorically swept across MENA has posed a threat to both countries since Iran, which was in support of the uprisings in the Gulf by Shiite minorities, especially in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, felt obliged to stop the moderate Western-backed opposition groups in Syria from overthrowing the Alawite minority’s, an offshoot Shiite sect, decades-long rule. Iraq has also become a territory for the country as a power struggle area as Iran has been pursuing a sectarian policy through backing the Shiite Baghdad government, which has a disastrous fame with its treatment against Sunnis, and backing the Shiite militias, which had been harshly criticized by rights groups for arbitrary killings, rapes, kidnappings and looting. Moreover, the removal of Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi by Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi militias has led to spilling the sectarian conflict.