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June 28, 2023 Special Dispatch No. 10685

Syrian Opposition Websites: UN Delegation Met With Iranian, Hizbullah Military Officials In Deir Al-Zour About Advancing Local Development Projects

June 28, 2023
Iran, Lebanon, Syria | Special Dispatch No. 10685

In June 2023, Syrian opposition websites reported that a delegation from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) recently held meetings with military officials from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and from Hizbullah to discuss the promotion of development and reconstruction projects in Deir Al-Zour and Al-Mayadin in eastern Syria, areas that are known to be strongholds of the Iranian and Iran-backed militias. According to the reports, the meetings took place in neighborhoods where the militias are strongly present. Although representatives of the Syrian regime, chief of them the Deir Al-Zour governor, also reportedly attended the meetings, it seems that their presence was mostly a formality, since the objective of the UN in holding the meetings was apparently to secure the cooperation of the Iranian side in order to begin implementing the projects. If these reports are correct, the meetings reflect de facto recognition by the UN of Iran's control of these areas, in contravention of UN Security Council Resolution 76/228 on the situation of human rights in Syria, which strongly condemned "the intervention in the Syrian Arab Republic of all foreign terrorist fighters and those foreign organizations and foreign forces fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime" and demanded their immediate withdrawal from Syria.[1]

This document reviews the reports on Syrian opposition websites about the meetings between the UN delegation and the IRGC and Hizbullah officials.

Report: UN Delegation Sought Cooperation Of Senior Iranian Officials For Development Projects In The Region

The France-based Arabic news portal Jesr Press, which opposes the Assad regime, reported that on June 7, 2023 a UN delegation visited the city of Deir Al-Zour and met with “several officials of the Iranian militias and the Assad regime.” According to the report, the meeting took place at the Havana café in the city center and went on for a few hours. Among those reportedly present were "Al-Hajj Rasoul," head of the Iranian Cultural Center in eastern Syria, "Al-Hajj Sajjad, a senior IRGC military official,” and Al-Hajj Soumar, a Lebanese military commander “who recently arrived in Deir Al-Zour.” The Syrian regime was represented by Deir Al-Zour Governor Fadel Al-Najjar; district council head As'ad Al-Toukan; Deir Al-Zour Mayor Jarir Kakakhan, and the Ministry of Agriculture representative in the region, Fuad 'Abdoun. Also present were representatives of the Suleiman Al-Mustafa Company for Technical Works, the contractor that carries out maintenance and repair work for the Deir Al-Zour city council.

According to the sources cited in the report, the UN delegation “asked the Iranians to appoint representatives from the Iranian Cultural Center to help launch several projects,” and the purpose of the meeting with the Iranians was to secure their cooperation in order to start implementing the projects. The website noted that the projects include the paving of roads and the installation of solar panels and streetlights. It added that, in early June 2023, UNDP had reported the commencement of several projects in Deir Al-Zour, including "Shabab 2023," an educational program for young people aged 18 to 35; a project to rebuild the marketplace in the city center, and a project for the the installation of a solar power system.

“Sources in the Deir Al-Zour city council” told the portal that the contacts between the UN and the Iranian officials angered representatives of the regime in the region, who believe that the UN should be in direct contact with them, since they are “the officials making decisions about the implementation of projects in the area.”[2]

On June 18, 2023 the opposition website Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that, on the previous day, a UN delegation had visited the city of Deir Al-Zour and met with Al-Hajj Rasoul, Al-Hajj Sadeq and Al-Hajj Soumar at the Karamish restaurant in the Friends Park in the Hawija Saqr area. Also present at the meeting was the Deir Al-Zour governor, the Ministry of Agriculture representative and the head of the city council. Several projects were discussed, including putting up streetlights and solar power systems, restoring parks and installing lights along the promenade.[3]

On June 19, another opposition website reported that a UN delegation had visited the Al-Watani Hospital in the city of Al-Mayadin, “which was rebuilt by the Iranian militias,” and the Iranian Cultural Center in Deir Al-Zour.[4]

The Iranian Cultural Center In Deir Al-Zour – A Center For Shi’ization And Recruitment Of Fighters

The Iranian Cultural Center in Deir Al-Zour was established in mid-2018, about a year after the Syrian regime forces and the Iran-backed militias defeated ISIS and recaptured the area. Additional centers were established in the cities of Al-Mayadin and Al-Bukamal, with local branches in several nearby towns. The centers are part of Iran’s efforts to disseminate Shi’ite Islam in Syria, largely with the support of the regime.[5] Over the years, Syrian opposition websites have reported that the center in Deir Al-Zour disseminates Shi’ism, mainly among children and vulnerable populations. According to one of the reports, the center has established several schools in the governorate, where the Persian language and Shi’ite Islam are taught, and is also involved in educational activities held at Syrian regime schools and universities in the region.[6]


The Iranian Cultural Center in Deir Al-Zour (Image:deirezzor24.net)

Similar centers have been established along the coast and in Damascus, whose goal, according to reports, is not only to disseminate Shi’ism among the local population but also to promote the recruitment of locals to the Iran-backed militias in Syria.[7] The importance ascribed by Iran to these centers is apparent from the identity of their senior officials, most of them high-ranking IRGC officers, and from the fact that these officers are usually promoted to important positions after they conclude their tenure at the centers.[8]

The Figures Who Met With The UN Delegation: Senior Military Officers From The IRGC And Hizbullah

The figures whom the UN delegation met are commanders, some of them senior, in the IRGC and in Hizbullah.

Al-Hajj Rasoul – In Charge Of Arming IRGC Forces In Deir Al-Zour

According to a November 30, 2021 report on the opposition website Orient News, Al-Hajj Rasoul was appointed head of the Iranian Cultural Center on November 2, 2021, in addition to his role as head of the armament department at “Nasser base, one of Iran’s strongholds in Deir Al-Zour."


Al-Hajj Rasoul, circled, at a Baath Scouts ceremony in Deir Al-Zour (Source: Orient-news.net, November 11, 2021; twitter.com/EyeEuphrates, May 27, 2021)

The website also reported that, upon his appointment as head of the center, Al-Hajj Rasoul made numerous changes to its operation, including taking control of humanitarian associations, “especially those funded by the UN.” According to the website, most of the center’s activity takes place at the Friends Park in Hawija Saqr – a military zone accessible only to persons authorized by the IRGC.

Al-Hajj Rasoul continued the policy of his predecessors, including efforts to take control of the  Scouts branches operating in the city. In order to win over the local population, the center holds many activities for children and provides humanitarian services.[9]

Al-Hajj Sajjad

According to a report from January 12, 2023, Al-Hajj Sajjad is the IRGC military officer in the Al-Bukamal area and was even granted an award of distinction for his activities.[10] A June 1, 2023 report claimed that he was in charge of the Afghani and Pakistani militias in the Al-Bukamal area.[11]

Al-Hajj Soumar

Al-Hajj Soumar is a Hizbullah commander, who was appointed in May 2023 as head of special operations in Deir Al-Zour. He previously served in the Homs Governorate.[12]

Syrian Opposition Website: IRGC Has Taken Over A UNICEF Kindergarten In Al-Bukamal

The previously-mentioned report about the efforts of Al-Hajj Rasoul, head of the Iranian Cultural Center in Deir Al-Zour, to take control of humanitarian associations affiliated with the UN, is not the only report of its kind. On September 13, 2021, the Eye of Euphrates opposition website reported that the IRGC had taken control of a kindergarten established by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in the city of Al-Bukamal. According to the report, the IRGC, by means of the Iran-affiliated Jihad Al-Bina Association, provides the children with food and drink and covers the cost of their transportation to and from the kindergarten. The website added that the IRGC also pays teachers who give the children lessons on Shi'ite Islam.[13]

 

[1] Un.org, January 10, 2022.

[2] Jesrpress.com, June 9, 2023.

[3] Syriahr.com, June 18, 2023.

[4] Orient-news.net, June 19, 2023.

[5] On Iran’s efforts at the Shi’ization of Syria, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1280, Together With Its Allies, The Syrian Regime Is Forcing Demographic Change In Areas Of The Country - For Self-Protection And Self-Preservation, November 15, 2016.

[6] Enabbaladi.net, September 28, 2021.

[7] Almodon.com, April 12, 2023.

[8] Al-Hajj Hussein, for example, Al-Hajj Rasoul's predecessor as the head of the Deir Al-Zour center, was promoted to a position at the Iranian mission in Damascus (Orient-news.net, November 30, 2021).

[9] Orient-news.net, November 30, 2021.

[10] Almejas.net, January 12, 2023.

[11] Eyeofeuphrates.com, June 1, 2023.

[12] Eyeofeuphrates.com, May 29, 2023.

[13] Eyeofeuphrates.com, September 13, 2021.

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