In its quest to expand influence and footprint in eastern Syria, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has embarked on a systematic initiative to increase the number of Shia shrines and religious sites in Deir Ezzor province.
By tilting the religious environment in its favour, observers say, the IRGC intends to facilitate demographic change in the region and provide its militias with a justification to deploy in this part of Syria in "defence" of these shrines.
After the military defeat of the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS), the IRGC sought to consolidate and expand its influence in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, which borders Iraq, said Syrian lawyer Bashir al-Bassam.
It has done this by promoting the doctrine of Wilayat al-Faqih, which calls for allegiance to Iran's supreme leader, and by attempting to imbue the region "with a Shia character that did not exist before its arrival", he said.
This push was set in motion by Iranian elements of the IRGC with the assistance of affiliated militias, and was further developed through the establishment of scout troops organised by Iranian cultural centres "until the work was assumed by the so-called Shia Endowment (Waqf) in Deir Ezzor", he said.
Operating through the Shia Endowment, the IRGC has been able to put its hands on buildings and land in the province, where it has set about building shrines, religious centres and logistical services facilities, al-Bassam said.
This signals its intention to make the region a destination for religious tours and pilgrims coming from Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, he said.
Meanwhile, he noted, the Syrian regime is "facilitating the expansion of the Shia Endowment's activities" by permitting the government-run Endowments Directorate in Deir Ezzor to co-operate with it.
The Shia Endowment has obtained special permissions, he said, and has been converting lands and buildings placed at its disposal for its own purposes.
Deir Ezzor Endowments Directorate director Mukhtar al-Naqshbandi has been in constant contact with the Shia Endowment and the Iranian Cultural Centre in Deir Ezzor to facilitate the IRGC's activities in the region, al-Bassam added.
The Shia Endowment has acquired many properties in the cities of Deir Ezzor and al-Mayadeen, and in the border town of Albu Kamal.
It also has been acquiring or gaining control of properties in "the villages of al-Quriyah, Hatla, al-Sawa, Jadid Akidat, Abu Khashab, Zughair Jazirah and al-Kasrah", Albu Kamal resident Luay al-Sufi said.
Notable religious sites in Deir Ezzor city administered by the Shia Endowment include "the Ammar bin Yasser Mosque in al-Ummal district and the husseiniyah in the Harabash district", al-Sufi said.
In the city of al-Mayadeen, they include "al-Hassan wal Hussein mosque in al-Jura district, Abdul Rahman bin Auf mosque in Jamiyat district, and al-Tammo mosque in al-Tammo district", he said.
And in Albu Kamal, the Shia Endowment now administers al-Karaj (Duwar al-Tayyara) mosque and the Abdullah bin Abbas mosque, he added.
Additionally, al-Sufi said, the IRGC has established a number of husseiniyahs in the town of Hatla and now controls Qubbat Imam Ali in the town of al-Suwayiyah and the Ain Ali shrine in the desert area around al-Quriah.
The Shia Endowment confiscated lands in the vicinity of the Ain Ali shrine in order to build "rest houses and a hotel to accommodate visitors, instead of the air conditioned tents that were set up to serve them in the past", al-Sufi said.
Co-opting existing religious shrines
At the same time, al-Sufi said, the IRGC is significantly stepping up its efforts to recruit local youth into its various militias through "religious centres", enticing them with salaries and with access to relief aid and security protection.
In its attempt to attract new recruits, it is "exploiting religious sentiment and [playing up] the necessity of protecting religious centres, claiming they would be destroyed otherwise", he said.
The IRGC also started a military and ideological 40-day course in al-Mayadeen, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported December 31.
Almost 100 residents of al-Mayadeen and surrounding towns and villages have joined the course, the Observatory said.
The IRGC is both co-opting existing religious shrines and building new ones.
The Nabeh Ali area has been converted into a Shia shrine under the name of Ain Ali, said history professor Haydar Zeidan, who used to teach at the University of Aleppo and is now based in Germany.
This area used to be called "Ain Abagh" and has existed for hundreds of years, he said. It was once known for its lighthouse, which served as a beacon for travellers between Iraq and Syria.
It is one of the region's most important archaeological areas and has yet to be fully excavated, he said, adding that there is concern that excavation work carried out by the IRGC will destroy any buried antiquities.
"What is happening in Deir Ezzor province is not a surprising action by the IRGC," Zeidan said, noting that it has a history of using religious pretexts and propagating the doctrine of Wilayat al-Faqih to expand its influence.
The IRGC has been "deliberately increasing the number of shrines and bringing in pilgrims and visitors to justify the stationing of affiliated militia elements to protect [the shrines] and their visitors", he said.
The IRGC has previously employed this modus operandi in Iraq, Lebanon and various regions of Syria, "and it has now been done in Deir Ezzor," he said.
The Ain Ali shrine area has been transformed into a military zone, he added, "and entry to it is allowed only for the IRGC, militias and visitors from inside and outside the country, who are escorted after they obtain entry permits".