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Aside from militarization and the formation, deployment, and maneuvering of militias on the ground, Iran is leading a “soft policy” in the regions of eastern Syria, specifically in Deir ez-Zor Governorate, as observers see it, and it is “more dangerous” than the rest of the announced practices and steps, according to their expression, as it quietly targets members of society there. .

This policy has always been linked to what is known as the “Iranian Cultural Center” in Deir ez-Zor, and after local reports over the past years shed light on it from the standpoint of its intended goal, its name was repeated two days ago, by the “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights” and local news sites.

ObservatoryHe spoke in a report, published on Wednesday, about a meeting held by Iranian officials, headed by the Iranian “Hajj Rasoul,” in the aforementioned cultural center, which included preachers and imams of mosques in Deir ez-Zor.

Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria

He said, “Iranian officials informed the attendees of the exclusion of the Syrian regime’s Ministry of Endowments from its duties, and the Iranian Cultural Center’s control over the public religious sphere in all its details.”

Mosque imams and preachers were given a number of new instructions and controls, including that “the Friday sermon be unified in all mosques in the region, based on the sermon issued by the Iranian Cultural Center,” according to the Observatory.

They were also informed, as stated in his report, about “the necessity of limiting the Tarawih prayer to eight rak’ahs,” and the meeting touched on “the subject of Shiism and the necessity of encouraging it, in addition to encouraging young people and inviting them to join the ranks of the Iranian militias.”

The local North Press news website indicated that the meeting was attended by clerics from the Shiite sect and officers and generals in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, led by Hajj Rasoul al-Irani. It explained that it lasted two hours, and at its conclusion, “conditions were set for prayer and religious sermons in order to adhere to them.”

“Between denial and confirmation”

Al-Hurra website communicated with sources from Deir ez-Zor Governorate, and while some denied what happened during the meeting or even that it took place, others confirmed it, and they all agreed on the hidden role associated with the “Cultural Center”, whose tasks are specifically focused on the city of Deir ez-Zor.

In turn, the director of the “Observatory”, Rami Abdel Rahman, stressed the accuracy of the information published about the meeting and told the “Al-Hurra” website: “Iran is working away from the regime because it does not trust it, and through the center it is building a popular incubator for itself in the region through its agents.”

Abdul Rahman considered that it “also works to perpetuate the culture of the guardian of the jurist within Syrian territories and through its centers.”

He added: “There are people who follow this framework and who are forced to rely on the assistance provided by the centers and their branches due to poverty.”

A general view of Deir ez-Zor in Syria

According to what was stated in the “Observatory” report, the “Iranian Cultural Center” held an iftar meal in a tent inside the Al-Qusour neighborhood in the city of Deir ez-Zor, “with the aim of gaining popular support.”

He added that the Iranian militias are preparing food baskets to distribute to poor families who live without a breadwinner in the city of Deir ez-Zor, in coordination and cooperation with the city’s governor in the regime’s government, with the aim of winning over and attracting civilians to the ranks of the militias.

What is the “Cultural Center”?

Iranian interference in Syria became clear between 2013 and 2018 when it intervened to help the Syrian regime in its war against the opposition, and when it also participated in fighting ISIS, in eastern Syria, in order to impose its presence and influence there.

The phase of confronting ISIS by the Syrian regime and its Iranian militia allies constituted an essential stage in terms of the growing influence of the “Revolutionary Guard” in the regions of eastern Syria, specifically Deir ez-Zor and Albukamal.

The influence was not limited to the military path, the formation of militias, the construction of sites, and the spread throughout the entire geography of the region there, but rather took a parallel path after the establishment of the “Cultural Center” in late March of 2018.

The center is located in the city of Deir ez-Zor (the main one), and it has two large branches in the cities of Al-Mayadeen and Al-Bukamal, and two small branches in the town of Hatla and the town of Al-Tebni, west of the governorate, as journalist Zain Al-Abidin Al-Akidi explains to the Al-Hurra website.

He says that “its real activity began in February of 2019,” and the construction of a new branch is currently underway in the Maadan area in the eastern countryside of Raqqa, parts of which the regime controls.

The aforementioned center has huge activities throughout Deir ez-Zor, which include several aspects, according to Al-Aqidi, including educational, medical, and entertainment.

The journalist adds that the person responsible for managing and supervising it is “Hajj Rasoul,” an Iranian national, and his deputy, called “Hajj Abu Ruqayyah,” and points out that the role of the latter has escalated since 2024 after the repeated absences of the former.

The rest of the administrative positions within the center are held by Syrian officials, including women, such as Julnar al-Hussein, who hails from Deir ez-Zor and holds the position of “Cultural Center Coordinator,” according to Zain al-Abidin.

Along with her, Amer Al-Hussein, a resident of Al-Mayadeen, holds the position of managing the “Cultural Center” in the city, which Western and local media always describe as the “capital of Iranian militias” in eastern Syria.

“They target children”

In a previous analytical article in the Washington Institute, researcher Ola Al-Rifai points out that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the Popular Mobilization Forces have infiltrated the social fabric of the majority Sunni Arab population in eastern Syria since they took control of the region.

This path, she explains, came “through a variety of social and economic activities,” helping them impose their brand of Twelver Shiite Islam on cash-strapped locals.

The Iranians aim to influence children in Syria

For example, with the blessing of the Assad regime, Al-Rifai says, “The Iranian Cultural Center in the city of Deir ez-Zor forces school and university students to participate in its activities.”

She points out that the Revolutionary Youth Union of the regime’s Baath Party had also earlier ordered the local education directorate to lead field trips to attend Shiite religious ceremonies, Revolutionary Guard lectures, short story writing events, and sports competitions.

This information is confirmed by those who spoke to the Al-Hurra website, while journalist Zain Al-Abidin believes that the Iranians “target children more than adults in Deir ez-Zor and the areas where they are deployed in eastern Syria.”

“Through the tours held by the Cultural Center, they tell them about the virtues of Qassem Soleimani and Imam Ali,” according to what the journalist residing in Deir ez-Zor said. Soleimani is the commander of the Quds Force in the Revolutionary Guard and was killed in an American strike near Baghdad Airport. Many violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity against Syrians are linked to his name.

He added: “Two weeks ago, Haj Sadiq (an Iranian military official) and Abu Ruqayyah (the center’s deputy official) made a series of visits to Deir ez-Zor schools, and spoke to them about the Iranian revolution and Soleimani.”

“They work like ISIS and try to brainwash…they want the young, not the old,” and they focus largely on the city of Deir ez-Zor, despite the activities of the “Cultural Center” in other surrounding areas and towns, according to the Syrian journalist.

“Low cost, big impact”

The Syrian researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Nawar Shaaban, explains that Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria is considered a disaster area, as it has witnessed several wars and attacks over the past years, the last of which was the moment of the elimination of ISIS.

Based on these circumstances, we must look at what Iran is doing, according to Shaaban.

He told the “Al-Hurra” website: “It is investing in the cultural center that it established because Deir ez-Zor is weak in terms of services and socially exhausted. This soft tool is low in cost, but it leaves a significant impact.”

The Syrian researcher believes that, simply by carrying out social activity, training courses, lectures, plays, seminars, etc., “it will have a positive impact in terms of strengthening Iran’s positive role in the region.”

Although “Iranian cultural centers” are spread throughout the governorates under the control of the Syrian regime, Shaaban points out that the one in Deir ez-Zor “receives greater attention, as do their results.”

Since the outbreak of the war in Gaza, the “Cultural Center” in Deir ez-Zor has focused on “seminars concerned with the resistance, Qassem Soleimani, and the return to the Islamic Revolution in Iran,” according to the researcher.

He continues: “Society is exhausted and the economic situation is as well, which allows cultural centers to expand because they are active in a tired society and in a soft brick due to what it has gone through previously.”

“Create an incubator”

In addition to the above, the Cultural Center has several institutions or departments that undertake specific activities, such as the “Bright Light Center” in the city of Al-Mayadeen in Deir ez-Zor, the “Brotherhood Center” in Albukamal, and the Women’s Center in the city.

Journalist Zain Al-Abidin explains that the majority of employees at its main headquarters and departments are Syrians, while the management is Iranian.

Iran is trying to create a popular incubator for itself inside Deir ez-Zor

Among the activities they carry out are “literacy eradication courses” and courses in the government curriculum for the middle and high school levels, along with providing scholarships to obtain master’s and doctoral degrees for university graduates in Iran and teaching the Persian language.

The center also worked to establish kindergartens similar to the kindergartens in Al-Mayadeen and Al-Suwaiyah and in the city of Deir Ezzor, and to conduct courses to teach the Arabic and English languages.

Years ago, in cooperation with the “Jihad Al-Binaa” organization, he established medical centers spread throughout the cities and towns of Deir ez-Zor Governorate, and worked to rehabilitate parks and schools on his own, as is the case with “Karamish” Park in Hawija Sukr, which they changed its name to “Friends Club,” according to the journalist.

Zain Al-Abidin points out “continuous entertainment activities and trips for children and lessons on the Shiite doctrine.”

He says that these tours are always to areas inside Deir ez-Zor and sometimes to the city of Latakia.

Who remains in Deir ez-Zor?

Currently, when looking at Deir ez-Zor from the inside, the Syrian journalist explains that only 30 percent of the population remains there, and he also talks about the existence of entire villages and towns in which only a few families live.

“Some people work with the Iranians for financial benefit only,” says Zain al-Abidin, without taking into account the existence of “cases of individuals who work in the cultural center or those involved in the militias becoming common.”

He explains that “the presence of Iranians in a large proportion has begun to create a factor of fear among the population.”

He added, “Families are now afraid of continuous bombing. As soon as the Iranians settle in a place or neighborhood, the neighbors quickly leave the area.”

Deir ez-Zor has a conservative Sunni community in the majority, and despite the control of the militias and the great activity of Iran, there is apprehension among the residents of this part, according to Zain al-Abidin.

While he believes that “the percentage of those who convert to Shiism does not exceed dozens,” he asserts, on the other hand, that “what Iran is doing through the cultural center aims to attract the population and create an incubator in preparation for a future Shiite process.”

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