Iran has established a large “cultural, sports and recreational complex” in the southeastern countryside of the Syrian capital, Damascus, in an attempt to consolidate its influence in the war-torn country.
The complex is located in the town of Hujeira that is adjacent to a region held by Russia, in a move interpreted by locals as an act of defiance to Moscow, which had previously thwarted Iran’s attempts to form a new “Dahieh” in Damascus.
Dahieh refers to the Iran-backed Hezbollah stronghold in the southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital Beirut.
Hujeira, located near Babbila, lies around a kilometer north of Sayyida Zaynab, the stronghold of Iranian militias in the southeastern Damascus countryside, which in turn lies 8 kilometers away from the capital.
The “Martyr Colonel Haitham Suleiman Complex” was set up on a vast territory on the outskirts of a residential area that has since the beginning of the war been depleted of its locals, who have fled to safer areas.
A few finishing touches remain before the complex is inaugurated. It is enclosed by a high wall, which has been plastered with the Syrian national flag and banners of various Iranian militias. A large poster of President Bashar Assad, Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei and slain military commander Qassem Soleimani greets the visitors before they enter the facility.
Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force, was killed in a US drone strike in Baghdad in January 2020.
Asharq Al-Awsat learned that Iran’s Jihad al-Binaa began constructing the complex shortly after the regime recaptured the area. The organization has been active in Syria since 2015 under the guise of implementing service and development projects, especially in regime-held regions.
The complex boasts several green spaces, gardens and playgrounds. The overall scene reveals that massive funds have been pumped into the facility at the time when government-held regions have long been suffering from various shortages in fuel, wheat, bread, basic food and electricity.
Significantly, the complex was constructed in northwestern Hujeira, on the district border of Babbila, which is under Russian influence.
Babbila residents told Asharq Al-Awsat that the move was a deliberate act of defiance of Russia.
The southeastern Damascus countryside boasts several towns and villages, the largest of which are Babbila, Yalda, Beit Sahm and Hujeira. The countryside is bordered to the north by the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp and the al-Tadamon neighborhood. To the south lies Sayyida Zaynab, to the east Eastern Ghouta and the west al-Hajr al-Aswad.
The government recaptured Babbila, Yalda and Beit Sahm after a reconciliation agreement that was mediated by Russia in 2018. The deal led to the displacement of opposition factions that had rejected the reconciliation. After the agreement, Russia set up a large station for its military police in Yalda. Its forces regularly carry out patrols in Yalda, Babbila and Beit Sahm. Hujeira, meanwhile, fell under Iranian influence.
The Syrian government has since reopened two of the three roads that reach Babbila. The third connects Babbila to Sayyida Zaynab and has remained off limits to civilians. Syrian security forces have set up checkpoints at the entrance of Hujeira.
Several residents from Babbila, Yalda and Beit Sahm have speculated that the ongoing closure of the road can be blamed on the Russian-Iranian clash for power in Syria. Moscow has strived to prevent Tehran from forming Iranian strongholds in the Damascus countryside and sponsored reconciliation agreements to ensure that it holds sway on the ground.