Umayyad Mosque directive: Is al-Assad sending Arab states a signal?

A new directive that limits Shiite pilgrims' access to the mosque coincided with the Arab summit. It could be an attempt to show that he is curbing Iranian-sponsored religious activities in Syria.

Umayyad Mosque directive: Is al-Assad sending Arab states a signal?

Syria's top security authority, the National Security Office, has recently issued a directive requiring special approvals for tourist and religious groups wishing to enter the historic Umayyad Mosque.

The decision, which limits access to one of Damascus' most popular tourist and religious sites, follows closely on the heels of the regime's launch of a new online visa system aimed at streamlining visa procedures to entice more tourists. This begs the question: Why would the Syrian government impose such restrictive measures just as it's striving to boost tourism?

Heightened tensions

This seeming contradiction may stem from heightened tensions between the Sunni-majority residents of Damascus and Shiite pilgrims, predominantly from Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon, who frequent the religious shrines in the old city. These tensions arise from the overt display of religious practices and slogans by large numbers of Shiite pilgrims during their visits to religious sites inside and around the Umayyad Mosque in recent years.

These practices, previously not permitted in Syria, particularly in mixed areas, reportedly have fuelled resentment among the Sunni residents of the capital. Beyond the sectarian implications of certain slogans, tensions stemming from these practices appear to have been exacerbated by reports of Iran's efforts to promote Shiism in the country through various means.

Incentivising Shiite tourism

It's worth noting that the increased influx of Shiite pilgrims and the authorisation of public religious practices was not accidental. Over the past year, the Syrian regime has amended regulations to attract these pilgrims, seeking to rejuvenate the tourism sector and bolster the economy. In November 2023, the regime began allowing Iraqis to obtain visas upon arrival without prior security approval.

Seeking to rejuvenate the tourism sector and bolster the economy, the Syrian regime has amended regulations to attract Shiite pilgrims in the past year which is why the new directive surprised many.

Initially, this privilege was granted only to Iraqis with previous entry visas for al-Assad-controlled territories in their passports, but it has since been extended to first-time Iraqi visitors as well in a bid to make entry more accessible.

In March 2024, the al-Assad government also slashed visa fees for one-month stays for Iraqis from $80 to $50. With Iranians already able to enter Syria visa-free, the regime issued a directive in July 2023 allowing Iranians on religious visits to pay their hotel fees in Syrian pounds at the official rate, advantageous as it's lower than the black market rate. These measures significantly boosted religious tourism, especially among Iraqi visitors, with their numbers skyrocketing from 11,000 in January last year to 44,000 in January 2024.

Heightened tensions

However, the recent surge of religious visitors, as per local reports, has exacerbated tensions in Damascus, particularly in Old Damascus, where the Umayyad Mosque holds significant religious importance for Sunnis as well. Alongside murmurs among Damascenes regarding the situation resulting from the regime's decisions, there have been calls on social media for the government to regulate the conduct of Shiite pilgrims.

In response to the heightened tensions, the regime has reportedly taken several measures to alleviate the strain caused by its policies, particularly at the start of the holy month of Ramadan, when spirituality and religious observances reach their peak at the Umayyad Mosque.

Local media outlets have reported that plainclothes security personnel are stationed at the entrance of Al-Hamidiyah Souq, the gateway to the Umayyad Mosque, to deter Shiite pilgrims from engaging in religious displays, such as waving flags or playing religious music over loudspeakers within or near the mosque premises.

The new directive could aim to diffuse tensions, especially amid growing public discontent in regime-held areas due to worsening economic conditions and reduced state subsidies.

Notices have also allegedly been posted in and around Shiite shrines in Old Damascus, outlining prohibitions on mobile phone and camera usage within the sacred sites, as well as a blanket ban on microphone and loudspeaker use.

If these reports hold true, the recent directive from the National Security Office may indeed signal a reinforcement of measures aimed at diffusing tensions, especially amidst growing public discontent in regime-held areas due to worsening economic conditions and reduced state subsidies. According to the reports, the directive not only requires special approvals for non-Syrians but also explicitly prohibits religious rituals within and around the Umayyad Mosque.

Given the limited number of foreigners visiting Syria, the directive's broad application to encompass all non-Syrians suggests a potential attempt by the regime to obscure its primary target and avoid potential tensions with Iran and its affiliates.

Coincidental timing?

More broadly, the directive's timing, coinciding with the Arab League meeting in Manama, hints at a broader geopolitical strategy. Al-Assad may be signalling to Arab states, in advance of his meeting with their leaders, that he is curbing Iran's sponsored religious activities in Syria.

Irrespective of the underlying motives, issuing a directive in al-Assad-controlled areas is a far simpler task than implementing it, especially when it poses the risk of antagonising the Iranian axis and jeopardising a crucial financial lifeline for the regime.

Furthermore, effectively addressing the tensions stemming from over a decade of sectarian rhetoric, exploited as a mobilisation tool by various actors in the Syrian conflict, particularly by the regime and its allies, necessitates more than a symbolic gesture focused solely on a single religious site, regardless of its importance.

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