Iraq News
Politics

Iran seeks to woo civilians in strategic area near Damascus

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo

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A representative of Jihad al-Bina foundation speaks before the distribution of school aid in the Syrian town of al-Batiha, outside Damascus. Iranian charitable initiatives in Syria used to be done quietly, but are now being carried out openly to attract attention. [Photo courtesy of Mohammed al-Beik]

Iran has been seeking to increase its influence in the area around Damascus by winning hearts and minds through so-called charitable institutions affiliated with its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), activists told Diyaruna.

These efforts have been targeting vulnerable families who are most affected by the war, which has been exacerbated and prolonged by Iran-backed Hizbullah, listed by the US Treasury as a specially designated terror group.

Families who have lost their main breadwinner are a particular focus.

Months ago, the Hizbullah-run, IRGC-affiliated Jihad al-Bina foundation, which is also listed as a specially designated global terrorist group, began providing food aid to the residents of al-Batiha in the outskirts of Damascus.

According to the Treasury, Jihad al-Bina, a Lebanon-based construction company formed and operated by Hizbullah, receives direct funding from Iran.

"Hizbullah operates Jihad al-Bina for its own construction needs as well as to attract popular support through the provision of civilian construction services," the Treasury said, noting that the foundation "has used deceptive means to seek funding for projects from international development organisations".

Local residents report that the foundation is currently engaged in a public relations offensive in al-Batiha area, also home to al-Wafideen refugee camp.

The area on the outskirts of Damascus has experienced severe economic hardship because of the deteriorating security situation, said activist Mohammed al-Beik of the local co-ordination committee in Eastern Ghouta.

Residents of this area are a mix of Syrians and Palestinian refugees who have historically suffered from government neglect, high unemployment and a lack of basic services such as water and electricity, he said.

Part of a wider plan

Despite its poverty and its rural nature, al-Batiha is significant as it is part of an area around Damascus the Syrian regime and its allies, including Hizbullah and the IRGC, refer to as "useful Syria".

The Syrian regime has been engaging in a pointed strategy to pave the way for Syria's future by creating a buffer zone of residents sympathetic to the regime around regime strongholds, and force out dissent, analysts have told Diyaruna.

Jihad al-Bina has begun making inroads in this area by offering small amounts of assistance to the poorest families, claiming to be helping widows and orphans.

A recent campaign included the distribution of simple items such as pencils, notebooks and other school supplies to orphans and poor children, al-Beik said.

Some residents are suspicious of the foundation's motives, he said, but are reluctant to voice their concerns as Syrian intelligence agents are known to accompany IRGC delegations on their tours of the region.

"Jihad al-Bina also works through a number of Syrian relief organisations, in order to move freely and penetrate deep across Syrian territory," he said.

These initiatives used to be done quietly, he noted, but are now being carried out openly and with fanfare that appears to be designed to attract attention.

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