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Sayyidah Zaynab area in Damascus…capital for Iranian expansion in Syria

A visit by Ebrahim Raisi, Chairman of Astan Quds Razavi, to Sayyidah Zaynab – 29 January 2018 (Fars News Agency)

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The town of Sayyidah Zaynab on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, Damascus, was just a town with a religious character among the Shiite sect, as it includes the burial site of the daughter of the caliph Ali bin Abi Talib, according to the beliefs of this doctrine.

However, after 2011, it has become a site for managing Iranian-backed militia operations, which poured into Syria in support of the Syrian regime forces to suppress the Syrian revolution. Thereby, acquiring a military dimension and becoming a starting point for mobilizing anyone with the belief of “the plot theory” the regime has adopted as a response to the occurring events in Syria.

On 2 April, the Syrian regime decided on the isolation of Sayyidah Zaynab, south Damascus, for the implementation of precautionary measures against the pandemic of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) which invaded the world including Iran. Since 2011, Iran has relied on Sayyidah Zaynab to manage its military presence and sectarian ambitions in Syria.

The representative of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Syria, Nima Abid, described the situation inside Syria regarding the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) as dangerous, because of the many religious shrines there, as reported by the channel “Russia Today” (RT), Russia’s state-funded international television news network, on 2 April.

Abid explained that he is referring to Sayyidah Zaynab and Sayyidah Ruqayya shrines in Damascus, being active destinations for many visitors from the neighboring countries where the epidemic spread on a large scale, especially Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Pakistan.

Town’s strategic location

Sayyidah Zaynab or Set Zaynab or Set (in Damascus dialect) is a Syrian town located about ten kilometers south of the capital, on the highway leading to Damascus International Airport, and the road leading to as-Suwayda city.

Its location renders it similar somehow to the southern suburb of Beirut, used by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah supporters as a zone of influence on the road from Rafic Hariri International Airport to the city center.

Administratively, Sayyidah Zaynab is a center sub-district affiliated to Rif Dimashq province, and one of the densely populated residential areas there, even though the number of its indigenous population did not exceed 13,000 people, according to “2011 census”.

Besides, this town is considered a tourist and religious area visited by hundreds of thousands of visitors and tourists from the Shiite community of Iran, Iraq, the Arab Gulf states, Lebanon, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and other countries throughout the year. Consequently, its economy depends highly on tourist movement and religious tourism.

An Iranian capital

Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, the regime launched propaganda campaigns against it to be labeled sectarian (Sunni) in order to gain and win minorities’ support inside Syria.

For that end and in order to reinforce this idea, slogans such as “Zaynab will not be held captive twice” began to appear in the neighborhoods of Sayyidah Zaynab, suggesting that what is happening in Syria is not a revolution, but rather an attempt to root out the Shiite presence in Syria.

These slogans have evoked responses from a number of fighters who joined militias funded by ” Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps” (IRGC) under the pretext of “Defending the Holy Shrines.”

With the beginning of 2012, many militias started operating in Sayyidah Zaynab area, most notably “Liwa Abu al-Fadhal al-Abbas” (Abu al-Fadhal al-Abbas Brigade), “Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba” and “fedayee Sayyidah Zaynab” (Sayyidah Zaynab commandos), next to other militias.

The regime also began cleansing the surrounding areas, and Syrian activists accused it of making a demographic change in Sayyidah Zaynab and its surroundings, through amending property laws and facilitating the land purchase.

Not only the families of these militias’ fighters were resettled, but the town turned into a place to hold political meetings between Iranian officials, as several senior officials visited the area.

The most prominent Iranian figure to visit the town was the Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, accompanied by the Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister, Faisal al-Miqdad, as a deliberate message to confirm the importance of this town for Iran.

In April 2018, Iran prepared a project to expand the Sayyidah Zaynab shrine in Damascus, which was to begin after coordinating with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Back then, the head of the Iranian Committee for the Reconstruction of the Holy Shrines (CRHS), Hassan Bou Larak, said that the project includes Sayyidah Ruqayya shrine as well, in addition to building an area to host visitors in Sayyidah Zaynab.

He also said that the agreement provides expanding the shrine by a distance of 150 meters in coordination with UNESCO, for there are other historical sites in the area.

Among the most prominent Iranian figures who have perpetuated the influence of Sayyidah Zaynab in Syria, was the commander of “Quds Force” affiliated to the IRGC, Qassem Soleimani, who appeared in tears at the shrine of Sayyidah Zaynab.

Three months after his killing at the hands of the American forces, in a raid at Baghdad airport upon his return from Damascus, a huge funeral ceremony was held in the town, where his photos covered and still to this day along Sayyidah Zaynab streets.

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