Iranian military in Syria in April 2021 | Strengthening of presence in different provinces…considerable loss of influence in al-Qamishli…key developments in west Euphrates…one Israeli attack
Iranian forces and their proxy militias still continue strengthening their presence throughout regime-held areas, disregarding the “cold war” with Russians and the repeated airstrikes by Israel and International Coalition, which are unable to put an end to such efforts or even hinder them.
In the following report, SOHR highlights the key developments in areas dominated by the Iranians in April 2021.
West Euphrates region
Ongoing reinforcement: On April 5, reliable SOHR sources in west Euphrates region in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor confirmed that a new weapons shipment of four trucks carrying short and medium-rang missiles affiliated to Iranian-backed factions entered Syria from Iraq, via the informal crossing of al-Sekak in near al-Bokamal city on the Syria-Iraq border. It is worth noting that the trucks were escorted by three Iranian military vehicles and a vehicle of the 4th Division. According to SOHR sources, two trucks were unloaded in weapons warehouses of the Afghani militia of “Liwa Fatemiyoun” in Ayyash area in the western countryside of Deir Ezzor, while the two other trucks headed to the Iranian-backed militias’ positions in the eastern countryside of Al-Raqqah.
While on April 21, reliable sources in Al-Mayadeen city in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor informed the Syrian Observatory that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps transported Iranian-made missiles, stored in the basements of Al-Rahbaa archaeological fortress nearby Al-Mayadeen in the west of Euphrates region, to areas under the control of Iranian forces in the eastern countryside of Al-Raqqah. The shipment of missiles were transported also in trucks used for transporting vegetables and fruit as a part of camouflage. Meanwhile, the reasons behind the transport of the missiles to this area remained unclear, especially since it coincided with the Russian movements a few kilometres away from this area, specifically in Ma’adan Atiq desert, near the administrative border between Deir Ezzor and Al-Raqqah.
Health sector: Iranian medicines have been further spread throughout the areas held by Iranians and loyal militias in Deir Ezzor and its countryside, especially in al-Mayadeen and al-Bokamal. That Iranian medicines are seen at pharmacies at competitive prices compared to prices of homemade Syrian medicines. The Iranians entered the pharmaceutical market with great facilitation by the regime’s Ministry of Health, whether through importing Iranian medicines or manufacturing them inside Syrian territory under cover of well-known Syrian companies with Iran’s full support. It is worth noting that Iranian medicines have been in Syria for more than 3 years. While these medicines are being produced in laboratories in the capital, Damascus, and the Syrian coastline through Syrian and Iranian companies.
SOHR activists say that the drug “Rivotril” is prevalent in west Euphrates region at pharmacies and in shops as well, and it is sold as pain killers without prescription, although it causes addiction. According to SOHR medical sources, “Rivotril” is one of the brand names of “Clonazepam”, which is a short-term treatment for both panic and anxiety. SOHR sources have also added that this drug affects the nerves in the brain and causes addiction when it is used continuously and then it plays as “narcotic”. However, the Iranians who control the region facilitate sales of this product and promote it.
The Syrian Observatory has also shed light on the coronavirus outbreak among the Iranians, as a medical source in “Fatema Al-Zahraa” hospital, specified for the Iranian-backed militiamen in Al-Mayadeen city in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor, informed SOHR, on April 6, that the hospital was unable to receive any new Iranian-backed militiamen infected with COVID-19, as the number of infections in the section allocated to coronavirus cases reached 65 in just a few days. According to SOHR sources, preparations were underway to open a new section for COVID-19 infections in the industrial high school near that hospital, where new cases would be quarantined.
Moreover, the Ministry of Health of the Syrian regime launched large-scale campaigns for sterilizing Shiite sites in Al-Mayadeen city in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor. The campaign covered the following sites:
- Ain Ali shrine
- The surrounding rest houses built recently by “Al-Waqf Al-Shi’i” for the Shiite visitors
- The mosque in Al-Tamou neighbourhood, which was turned by the Iranian-backed militias into a “hosayniya”, a congregation hall for Twelver Shia Muslim commemoration ceremonies, for their proxy militiamen in Al-Mayadeen city.
This development coincided with the Syrian regime’s disregard of sterilization of schools, universities and vital institutions, in light of the spread of COVID-19 infections throughout regime-held areas.
Entrenchment of presence: Iran has been exerting diligent efforts to entrench its presence areas on the western bank of Euphrates river, from al-Mayadeen city to the key city of al-Bokamal, through recruitment and “Shi’aism” proselytising operations (conversion to Shiite), exploiting the dire living conditions, or by taking over and purchasing real estate belonging to displaced people in other areas in Syria or refugees in foreign countries.
On April 17, the Afghani militia of “Liwaa Fatimiyoun” established, since early Ramadan, a soup kitchen in which meals were prepared and distributed to the residents of the city for free. In addition, food baskets bearing pictures of “Qassem Soleimani”, former commander of “al-Quds Corps”, and Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader were also distributed to the residents their. “A gift from the Islamic Republic of Iran” was written on these baskets.
Meanwhile, the “Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps” IRGC disbursed a one-time financial grant to its affiliated Syrian members in Deir Ezzor province, in west Euphrates region, equivalent to a monthly salary.
The local members affiliated with the IRGC receive 120,000 Syrian pounds per month, $ 40. This disbursement was given to celebrate the holy month of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr. While on April 28, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps started receiving volunteers to join Iranian militias in the city of Al-Mayadeen in eastern Deir Ezzor countryside.
According to SOHR activists, Iranian militias wanted new recruits to join their cadres as administrators and fighters, with 15 working days and 15 days off a month. Iranian militias offer a monthly salary of about $40, 120,000 Syrian pounds, in addition to a food basket, and free treatment services for the recruits’ relatives at medical centers and hospitals that belong to Iranian militia.
On April 9, SOHR sources reported that the Afghani militia of Liwaa Fatemiyoun graduated a batch of the new recruits of nearly 52 people in the militia’s camp in Al-Mazare’ area in Al-Mayadeen desert in eastern Deir Ezzor. The new recruits were taken to “Ain Ali shrine” in southern Al-Mayadeen in order to practice the rituals of Liwaa Fatemiyoun, including the smearing faces with mud in the shrine and getting blessing of water there. According to SOHR sources, Liwaa Fatemiyoun imposes these rituals on the militia’s new recruits. This development came in light of the ongoing efforts by Liwaa Fatemiyoun to be the most influential Iranian-backed power in Syria.
While on April 7, the Iranian-backed militias announced about a language course to teach the Syrian recruits of these militias Persian. According to SOHR sources, the language course was conducted online via mobile phones and PCs, and it would last for about 6 months, in cooperation with the “Iranian Cultural Center” in Deir Ezzor city. The course was presented by specialists in Persian. This development came as part of the Iranian expansion into Syrian territory, and Iran’s attempt to transmit its culture to areas under its control.
Popular discontent: SOHR sources reported growing popular anger among the residents of al-Tamou neighbourhood in al-Mayadeen city in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor over the Iranian-backed militias’ rejection of the return of these residents to their houses. It is worth noting that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Iranian-backed forces have seized all houses in al-Tamou neighbourhood since November 2017.
Since the Iranian-backed militias took over the neighbourhood, they turned many of the civilians’ houses into headquarters, while the other houses were used as residence for the Iranian-backed militiamen’s families, as the militias prevented civilians and combatants of other militias from entering the neighbourhood. The militias also used the neighbourhood’s mosque as a private mosque for their members, where the Shiite Azan was used and Shiite ritual was practiced.
Reliable sources told SOHR that most of the neighbourhood’s residents living in Deir Ezzor city agreed on entrusting ten people of them as representatives. However, when these representatives met with IRGC commanders, asking them to allow the neighbourhood’s residents to return to their houses, the commanders refused under the pretext that “they are present in the area for the glorious duty of jihad”. The commanders also asked the residents to embrace the “jihadists”, the Iranian-backed militiamen.
It is worth noting that the people of al-Tamou neighbourhood were forced to rent houses in other areas in the city, while others were forced to displace to other Syrian province.
North-east Syria: the Iranian loss their influence in al-Qamishli
It seems that the Iranians were the ultimate losers regarding the recent developments in al-Qamishli city in late April, oncluding fierce clashes between the Internal Security Forces (Asayish) and the Iranian-backed National Defence Forces (NDF), which led to the departure of NDF from the city, especially since the Iranians have been working on expanding their presence in al-Qamishli and al-Hasakah city since early 2021. Since mid-January, “Fatimiyoun” militia managed to recruit 710 people in al-Qamishli and al-Hasakah, 315 of whom were members and leaders of the National Defense Forces, while 395 were civilians and tribesmen such as the tribes of “Al-Abbid, Yassar, Harith, Bani Saba’a and Al-Sharayeen”. In order to attract more people, “Liwa Fatemiyoun” offered financial incentives and relatively high monthly salaries in light of the poor living conditions. On the other hand, the new recruits underwent training in camps in Tartab Brigade in southern Al-Qamishli.
Moreover, an Iranian person called “Haj Ali” and a former commander of the “National Defence Forces” (NDF) known by his initials as “M.W.” supervised the recruitment operations in the region. It is worth noting that a large number of NDF fighters joined “Liwa Fatemiyoun”. Meanwhile, Russia was trying to compete with Iranians for influence in the region by attracting tribesmen with the aim to counter Iranian influence and weaken SDF.
After loosing influence in al-Qamishli, Iranian-backed militias turned to al-Hasakach city, as Iran has sought to expand in Syria in various fields and sectors, with an ultimate goal to strengthen its presence in Syria. In this context, the General Foundation for Drinking Water and Sanitation in al-Hasakah province signed a contract with the Iranian company PFK, in the headquarters of the Ministry of Water Resources, to install four units to desalinate drinking water on wells in order to increase drinking water supplies in al-Hasakah city. It is worth noting that this is not the first time for Iran to undertake in such projects, as it is responsible for the project of two desalination units in Housh Sha’ir in Rif Dimashq.
Rif Dimashq: ongoing expansion and taking over more real estate
In Rif Dimashq, Iranian-backed militias continue moving freely in areas on the Syria-Lebanon border in Rif Dimashq, under supervision and support by the Lebanese Hezbollah, the de facto ruler of this region, as the purchasing of plots of land along the border strip is still on progress. It seems that the Iranian-backed militias disregard the Syria’s laws which ban selling or purchasing any land plots in border areas, while media concentration and coverage, by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in particular, have not hindered such “suspicious” movements. Since early 2021, Iranian-backed militias have purchased over 229 plots of land in Al-Zabadani area and at least 360 plots in Al-Tufayl border area, turning the region into an “independent” village headed by H.D. who is close to the Lebanese Hezbollah commanders.
Moreover, these militias continue taking over luxury apartments and villas in Bludan area and other surrounding areas, bringing the number of villas and apartments these militiamen inhabited in to 154 so far. These practices take place with full support by the Lebanese Hezbollah which facilitating such operations.
In eastern Ghouta, however, merchants hail from the city of al-Mayadeen in Deir Ezzor, affiliated with the Iranian-backed local militia of “Liwaa al-Abbas” operating under the Iranian forces’ command, continue to buy real estate from residents across eastern Ghouta, through “Abu Yasser al-Bakary”, who has previously bought many properties in various areas in eastern Ghouta at orders by “A.A.”, the leader of a pro-Iranian militia.
According to Syrian Observatory sources, the purchases were recently concentrated in the areas of the southern part of eastern Ghouta, in the areas of Zabdin, Deir al-Assafir, Hatitet al-Turkman and al-Meliha, where they purchased a large number of plots of land, houses, restaurants and parks which have been damaged by earlier military operations. They also purchased about 100 houses in the city of al-Meliha, some of which have been destroyed almost completely.
Meanwhile, negotiations between these militias and the owners of real estate offices are under way to buy buildings belonging to people living abroad, as their properties were completely destroyed due to airstrikes during military operations. Recently, the militias began to search for destroyed buildings to buy from their owners, for unknown reasons, after they were purchasing shops and habitable houses. Also, they purchased a large number of parks and restaurants in the areas of Hatitet al-Turkmen, Deir al-Assafir and Zabdin from their owners during the recent period.
Aleppo: ongoing recruitment operations
Recruitment operations by “Liwaa Fatemiyoun” are on the march, through ongoing “Shi’aism” proselytising operations (conversion to Shiite) by offering financial incentives and continuous usage of religion and sectarianism in light of the dire living conditions throughout Syria. According to SOHR sources, the number of people recruited by Iranian-backed militias since early February has risen to 740. The recruitment operations are concentrated in the areas of Maskanah, Al-Sfirah, Deir Hafer, and other areas in towns and villages of eastern Aleppo through Iran’s spiritual proxies and bureaus that offer financial incentives. This development coincides with Russia’s efforts to compete with Iranian militias for influence in this areas, along with the “cold war” between the two sides. It is worth noting that ISIS is active and prevalent in desert areas in the eastern countryside of Aleppo.
On April 8, SOHR activists documented new Israeli bombardment on military positions of Iranian-backed militias nearby Damascus in the early hours of Thursday morning, as Israeli strikes destroyed a weapons and ammunition warehouse believed to be used by militias affiliated to the Lebanese Hezbollah in a military post near al-Demas area. The Israeli attack also left three militiamen dead, but it was not known if they were Lebanese or foreigners affiliated to Iranian-backed militias, while others sustained various injuries.
Accordingly, it seems that the role of the Iranian-backed Afghani militia of “Liwaa Fatemiyoun” is enlarging, as it has become Iran’s second most powerful force in Syria after Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and it approaches to be the ultimate influential power, especially with Hezbollah’s shrinking role in the recent time. “Liwaa Fatemiyoun” has stepped up its activities, including the recruitment of more Syrians and establishment of headquarters and checkpoints in several provinces across Syria. After Aleppo, Damascus, Rif Dimashq, Homs, al-Qamishli, al-Hasakah, Deir Ezzor and south Syria region, “Liwaa Fatemiyoun” has deployed many checkpoints and established posts in the surrounding areas of T4 military airbase and the area of phosphate fields in Al-Farqalas area in Homs desert, while the regime checkpoints in these area have become symbolic.