The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights

Iran’s presence in Syria in January 2023 | 32 fatalities in aerial and ground attacks…establishment of air-defence batteries nearby Damascus…settlement of families of members and commanders in Hama and Homs

SOHR calls upon all international actors to intensify their efforts to expel Iran and its proxies from Syria and bring to justice all those who aided and abetted the killing and displacement of Syrian people

Iran and its proxy militias have unprecedented influence in most areas under the “symbolic” regime control, as neither attacks by Israel and the International Coalition, nor the “cold war” with Russia could hinder the alarming entrenchment and expansion of these forces across Syria. Strengthening their presence and promoting their ideology, the Iranians are still carrying on with their systematic plan to change the demography of different areas throughout Syria’s geography.


In the following report, SOHR highlights the key developments in areas dominated by the Iranians in January 2023.



Human casualties


SOHR activists documented the death of 32 Iranian-backed Syrian and non-Syrian militiamen in aerial and ground attacks in Syria in January 2023; they are as follows:


  • 12 militiamen were killed by ISIS: nine killed in Deir Ezzor desert and three killed in Homs desert.


  • 11 militiamen were killed by airstrikes by unidentified aircraft.


  • Seven militiamen: three Syrians and four non-Syrians, were killed in Israeli strikes.


  • A militiaman working for the Lebanese Hezbollah was assassinated in Daraa.


  • A militiaman was shot dead by Israeli soldiers.



Seizure of new houses in Hama and ongoing recruitment in Aleppo


In the first two weeks of January, the Iranian-backed Afghan militia of “Liwaa Fatemiyoun” took over new houses in the villages of Al-Rahjan, Al-Shakouziyah and Sheikh Helal in the north-eastern countryside of Hama. The seized houses belong to civilians who have been forced to displace since regime forces and Iranian-backed militias took control of that region. According to SOHR sources, the Iranian-backed militias have settled their families in the recently-seized houses, where those families have been brought from the eastern countryside of Homs.


While in Aleppo, Iranian-backed militias, namely the Afghan militia of “Liwaa Fatemiyoun,” continued recruitment operations, exploiting the disastrous living conditions of Syrians throughout regime-controlled areas. According to SOHR sources, the number of people who joined Iranian-backed militias in the eastern countryside of Aleppo since the beginning of escalating recruitment operations in February 2021 approximated 3,100. These operations, which are carried out by spiritual figures and offices offering financial incentives, are concentrated in the areas of Maskanah, Al-Sfirah, Deir Hafer and other towns and villages in eastern Aleppo.



Establishment of Iranian-made air-defence batteries nearby Damascus


On January 8, SOHR activists in Damascus reported seeing Iranian-backed militias and regime security service on high alert. This coincides with the arrival of a large number of members and commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, “Al-Quds Corps” and the Lebanese Hezbollah in Syria’s capital. The recently-arrived members and commanders came to Damascus under the pretext of “visiting the holy shrines, mainly Sett Ruqayyah shrine near the Umayyad Mosque.” SOHR sources confirmed that those militiamen were stationed in positions of the Lebanese Hezbollah and IRGC in the south of Damascus, after having visited the shrines.


While on January 17, very reliable sources informed SOHR that Iran was working on installing Iranian-made air defence batteries in Syria. According to SOHR activists, air defence batteries will be installed at nearly three locations south and south-west of Damascus, and near Damascus International Airport. Meanwhile, it is still unknown whether these batteries have actually arrived from Iran to Syria, or will arrive in the coming days. This came in light of repeated airstrikes by Israel that hit positions of Iranian-backed militia in Damascus and Rif Dimashq, amid the inability of the regime’s air defences to counter any Israeli attack.



Entrenchment of presence in former ISIS capital


Militias backed by Iraq and Iran are active in the south-eastern countryside of Al-Raqqah, from Al-Sabkhah area in the south-eastern countryside of Al-Raqqah to Maadan area. These militias recruit young men into their ranks and woo tribesmen by luring them with monthly salaries and services, similar to their policy with the residents of Deir Ezzor countryside. These militias provide the residents monthly salaries of nearly 300,000 Syrian pounds and monthly food aid for half a month of work.


Since last November, the militias have recruited more than 280 young men in two months. According to SOHR sources, the fresh recruits undergo a security study before being accepted to join the rank of the militia by officers of the Lebanese Hezbollah. The new recruits were then subjected to an intellectual and cultural course for several weeks, not exceeding three months, at the Cultural Office in Maadan, east of Al-Raqqah. They are then subjected to military courses under the supervision of officers of the Lebanese Hezbollah. Iranian-backed militias also gather at the outskirts of Al-Tabqah military airport, Dibsi Faraj and Dibsi Afnan in the western countryside, all the way to Al-Safirah area in the eastern countryside of Aleppo, where Al-Fatimiyoun Brigade and Lebanese Hezbollah are also present there. The sugar plant in Maskanah, east of Aleppo, is one of the largest gatherings of these militias.


Moreover, Iranian-backed militias continues their efforts to entrench their presence in regime-controlled areas as a part of Iran’s scheme to achieve material and military gains in different areas across Syria, mainly in Deir Ezzor and Al-Raqqah. Iranian-backed militias have dominated Al-Safiyan and Al-Thawra oil fields in the south-western part of Al-Raqqah since ISIS withdrew from the two prominent oil fields in April 2014.


In this context, SOHR sources have reported that Iranian-backed militias work on oil exploration and extraction in Al-Safiyan and Al-Thawra oil fields and take over the entire revenue. Moreover, the Iranians work on improving the production of the two oil fields, as the two fields produce only hundreds of barrels a day. It is worth noting that the two fields contain tens of wells and a pump used for pumping oil to refineries in the centre of Syria. The two fields are a store for the other fields in Deir Ezzor and Rumaylan in Al-Hasakah, where oil extracted at these fields is stored in Al-Safiyan and Al-Thawra oil fields which were found in western Al-Raqqah in the 1980s.


It is worth noting that Iranian-backed militias have recently boosted its military presence in that region, where SOHR sources reported on January 7 that groups of the Iranian militias and Lebanese Hezbollah were deployed on all the roads in wide areas of the Syrian desert from south eastern of Aleppo all the way to south western of Al-Raqqa, while regime forces and their proxies are present in some positions inside cities and villages of the mentioned areas.


The number of checkpoints deployed on the roads reached 28 security checkpoints, with some of them fixed and the others are makeshift (mobile), where 40 members fully equipped with anti-tank weapons, RPG launchers, 4×4 vehicles and motorbikes are present inside these checkpoints. The militias raise their flags with the flag of the Lebanese Hezbollah, starting from the junction of Athriah in Hama desert and Al-Khafsa area all the way to western Al-Raqqa countryside and western Manbij countryside. The militias are present in two oil fields near Sifyan and Al-Thawra oil fields, with mining operations for oil by Iranian militias.



Ongoing efforts to settle families of members and commanders in Homs desert


The command of the military operations room of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps continues working on settling tens of families of “Liwaa Fatemiyoun” in Palmyra city at the expense of the indigenous inhabitants who have been forced to displace from the city in the past years. SOHR activists have reported seeing the arrival of three buses carrying 15 families of fighters of “Liwaa Fatemiyoun” in Palmyra city in early January, where several houses in a neighbourhood in the western part of the city have been rehabilitated with the aim of settling these families.


Speaking to SOHR, a displaced civilian known by his initials as F. A. from Palmyra city and now living in Al-Bayadah neighbourhood in Homs says, “ I tried several times to get a security permission to return to my house and start rehabilitating it. However, the command of the Iranian military operations room refused to grant me the permission under the pretext that ‘my house is located in the security zone where only IRGC militiamen can be present.’ ”


On the other hand, SOHR activists have confirmed that tens of families of Iranian-backed fighters have been settled in Al-Sukhnah city, Al-Bayarat and Al-Dawrah Al-Zera’iyah in the eastern countryside of Homs.


Iranian-backed militias and Lebanese Hezbollah have imposed their influence at the level of security and military situations in large spaces of the south-eastern countryside of Homs where no regime forces are stationed. The presence of regime forces in this region is confined to some military checkpoints, while regime soldiers stationed at these checkpoint known for collecting money from civilians by imposing levies on them.


Meanwhile, the Lebanese Hezbollah dominates Al-Qusayr city and surrounding villages adjacent the border strip between Lebanon and Syria. Indigenous inhabitants in the city and surrounding villages are struggling with the systematic campaign of displacement by Hezbollah fighters, at a time when Shiaa families are housed in the region, so that Hezbollah can secure a popular base in these villages which have been turned into a hotbed for illicit drug business and plantation of hashsish which secure a major source of income for the Lebanese Hezbollah.



Developments in west Euphrates region top the events


Military movements


As Iranian-backed militias continue their efforts and adopt new strategies to strike the interests of the US-led International Coalition and Syrian Democratic Forces in areas under their control, the Iranians started recruiting carefully-selected individuals from Deir Ezzor, who travel comfortably from areas dominated by Iranian-backed militias and SDF-held areas across Euphrates river. According to SOHR sources, these individuals receive professional training with the aim of carrying out attacks against US forces, International Coalition and SDF.


Reliable SOHR sources have confirmed that the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Afghan militia of “Liwaa Fatemiyoun” have recently trained tens of individuals from Al-Mayadeen and Deir Ezzor cities, after having undergone security check-ups by the Lebanese Hezbollah. These individuals later underwent ideological, physical and military courses, in which they have been trained on the use of heavy and light weapons and the control of drones in order to be ready to carry out attacks for the benefit of the Iranians.


Iranian-backed militias later sent the elites of the recently-trained individuals, whose number is estimated to be 70, to Iran where they underwent more professional training courses.


Beside offering financial incentives, the Iranians relied on “Sheikh Nawwaf Al-Bashir,” the elder of Al-Baqarah tribe, to recruit young and adult men from the region’s tribes in order to launch attacks on Coalition bases from SDF-controlled areas, where these tribesmen can travel comfortably to SDF-controlled areas under the cover of visiting their relatives.


According to SOHR sources, Iran has turned to the new strategy, which is manifested in launching attacks on Coalition bases from SDF-controlled areas, in order to beat all accusations against Iranian-backed militias in west Euphrates region and pinpoint the responsibility for such attacks on ISIS cells which are broadly active and numerous in SDF-controlled areas.


Similarly, in early January, 70 members of “Fatimyon” militias finished their training courses on light and medium weapons in addition to using drones. According to reliable SOHR sources, the exercises took place in Al-Sa’aka camp and warehouses of Ayash western of Deir Ezzor, for all members of the National Defence in Al-Mayazin city, Harabish and Al-Jafra neighbourhoods, where these members underwent reconciliation. The members received physical exercises, military, doctrinal and guiding lectures to explain the importance of the Islamic resistance against the Israeli and American occupation. At the end of the course, 26 local members were sent to Iran to undergo extensive military exercises in the field of Intelligence.


On January 12, the Lebanese Hezbollah brought dozens of tribesmen in Deir Ezzor to its positions near the Syrian-Lebanese border in order to undergo military exercises on the use of light, medium and sophisticated weapons as well. 60 persons were carefully selected. They are members of Deir Ezzor tribes and reside in the areas under the control of the regime forces and Iranian-backed militias in Deir Ezzor.


Syrian Observatory sources added that the operation aims to confront the US-led International Coalition forces in SDF-held areas in Deir Ezzor. The group of 60 persons would undergo intensive and professional military drills, that would last for a long time. After completing the military drills in SDF-held areas, they would carry out operations against the international coalition forces in Deir Ezzor. The main reason for the selection of members from the residents of Deir Ezzor is because they can easily move between areas controlled by SDF and areas held by regime there.


While on January 17, members of Iranian-backed militia of the Syrian “Al-Duwaihi” left Syria for Iranian capital, Tehran, to attend a doctrine training course on “Wali Al-Faqih” curriculum, and attend military training course on advanced weapons such flying drones and others. According to SOHR sources, sending these members to Tehran is aimed at suppressing demonstrations in Tehran with the support of Iran’s “Revolutionary Guard Corps.”


Over the next two days, a new batch is supposed to leave Syria for Tehran to undergo ideologically and intellectually systematic exercises. In this context, the Iranian-backed militia commander, “an Iranian commander in charge of the area extending from Al-Bokamal to Al-Mayadeen, was changed and” Haji Siraj,” a Lebanese man, was assigned by Lebanese Hezbollah.


Also, on January 27, a group of local Iranian militiamen coming from the countryside of Aleppo and Homs arrived in Al-Bokamal city in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor to receive training courses in training fields of Iranian-backed militia.


According to SOHR activists, the group comprising nearly 70 militiamen would undergo training courses in fields in Al-Bokamal and in training camps in the western countryside of Deir Ezzor. These training courses would be supervised by Iranian trainers and members of the Lebanese Hezbollah-backed militia.


The recently-arrived militiamen would undergo a military and doctrinal course at Ayyash warehouse camp of the Afghan “Fatimiyioun” militia, and the most loyalist of Iranian-backed militiamen will be selected to be sent to Tehran to undergo other military courses.


On January 29, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps militia searched for new recruits to form a new faction in Deir Ezzor in areas held by IRGC. SOHR activists reported that the so-called “Fadi Al-Aqdafis” has visited, today, villages east of the Euphrates, such as Al-Husseinieh, Al-Salihiya and Hatla, to call on the dignitaries to invite the young men to join the ranks of Iran’s “Revolutionary Guard,” for a monthly salary of up to 500,000 SYP, a relief basket each month, received from the Syrian Red Crescent, and security privileges, exemption from compulsory service and visas to travel to Tehran for military training.



Military reinforcement


On January 23, nearly 20 grand refrigerated trucks, every one is 16-metres long with a slogan written on them reads “in commemoration of Sayeda Zeinab anniversary,” arrived in areas dominated by Iranian-backed militias in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor. The cargo of those trucks, which crossed into Syria from Iraq via the military border crossing, remains unknown. According to SOHR sources the trucks headed to Al-Mayadeen city, Ain Ali shrine in Al-Qouriyah desert and Deir Ezzor military airbase.


A day later, January 24, chiller lorries arrived at the security square in Al-Mayadeen in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor in the western Euphrates area. Chiller lorries unloaded their cargo at warehouses of the Afghan Fatimiyoun militia in the area there. According to SOHR sources, the four trucks entered, amid a significant mobilisation of militias. Trucks unloaded into Afghan warehouses in Al-Mayadeen city. Syrian Observatory sources suggested advanced systems and weapons to reach Iranian-backed militias.



Iranian expansion


On January 6, Iranian militias handed over nearly 800 food baskets to families supporting them in Al-Bo Kamal and Al-Mayadin cities, which are held by Iranian militias and regime forces eastern of Deir Ezzor. This came under the orders of the Iranian “Al-Haj Kamil” to win over the people of the region, taking advantage of the conditions and poverty, with the deterioration of living conditions in the region.


The number of baskets that were handed over to residents of Al-Mayadin is nearly 300 baskets and 500 baskets in Al-Bo Kamal. According to reliable SOHR sources, the distribution of food baskets began with members of the Iranian militias then dignitaries, nobles of tribes, officials of security services and heads of regime’s institutions that support Iran, after their names were registered by “Asad Al-Ali”, who hails from Hawayj Zaiban village in Deir Ezzor countryside and is the manager of centres of spreading Shiism and the Iranian “Al-Nor Al-Satae’” centre that is an office for registration of names, after it was a headquarters for accountants of ISIS during its control over the region.


Moreover, militias distributed more goods on children studying in “Al-Nor Al-Satae’” centre and residents, according to their loyalty to Iran. It is worth noting that the Iranian militias are promoting the fact that these aids are being provided by Iran in the anniversary of the “resistance martyrs” including Qassim Al-Suleimani.





Violent clashes with heavy weapons erupted, on January 10, between Syrian members of the Iranian-backed Fatimyon militias on one hand and members of the regime-backed “National Defence” on the other hand in Al-Bo Kamal desert in eastern Deir Ezzor countryside, causing several casualties among both sides, amid military mobilization in the desert. This came after negotiations between the regime and dignitaries of tribes in the desert that lasted a week, to approve on opening the desert in 55 kilometres of depth for herding sheep and carry out agricultural work in the desert, while the Iranian-backed militias rejected the resolution. On the same context, regime forces brought military reinforcements towards the desert, coming for Al-Bo Kamal city to support the “National Defence”, especially after the Iranian-backed militias led by “Al-Haj Hussein” refused to send reinforcements to support the regime.


While on January 21, a member of regime’s “Airforce intelligence” was shot dead in Al-Bokamal city in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor which is under the control of regime forces and Iranian-backed militias by a member of the 47th regiment of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard militia in a dispute over the drug trade.



Ongoing Israeli attacks


As Israel and unidentified aircraft continue to violate Syria’s sovereignty, SOHR documented four attacks in January: one by Israel and three by unknown aircraft, that left 18 people dead and heavy material losses. Here are further details of these attacks:


  • January 3: SOHR activists documented the death of seven Iranian-backed militiamen: three Syrians and four non-Syrians, in Israeli strikes on Damascus international airport and a nearby warehouse.


  • January 29: Seven people of non-Syrian nationalities, truck drivers and their escorts, were killed in strikes by unidentified aircraft on a convoy of refrigerated trucks affiliated to Iranian-backed militias in Al-Herri area in Al-Bokamal. According to SOHR sources, six refrigerated trucks were targeted shortly after crossing into Syria from Iraq.


  • January 30: An Iranian-backed commander and his two escorts, all of non-Syrian nationalities, were killed in renewed attacks by unidentified drones. According to SOHR sources, the drones attacked the commander’s four-wheel drive vehicles (4×4), while he was checking the site of the attack which took place a day earlier on Al-Ostorah square in Al-Herri town in Al-Bokamal countryside.


  • January 30: Unidentified reconnaissance drones executed a third round of attacks, targeting an oil truck carrying weapons and ammunition in Al-Suway’a town in Al-Bokamal countryside in eastern Deir Ezzor. The attack resulted in the explosion of the truck and left one person dead.


On the other hand, SOHR sources reported that areas controlled by Iranian militias and Lebanese “Hezbollah” on the Syrian-Lebanese border and the vicinity of Damascus sees a major security alert. The militias prevented anyone from approaching the main military headquarters and evacuated several residential buildings inhabited by militia members and leaders. According to the sources, security reinforcements were sent to the headquarters of the Iranian-backed militia and the Lebanese “Hezbollah.” The commanders’ vehicles were assembled in specific locations. Iranian-backed militias and Lebanese Hezbollah are afraid of security breaches and security flaws that could lead to targeting their military positions, headquarters, and weapons depots.


Moreover, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Lebanese Hezbollah carried out a campaign of arrests among Syrian fighters backed by Iranian-backed militias in Al-Bokamal and Al-Mayadeen cities in areas held by Iranian-backed militias and regime forces in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor, arresting at least 11 Syrian militiamen.


According to the sources, the reason for the arrests is for interrogation of the fighters on charges of communicating with the “International Coalition” and “Israel,” for the distrust by the Iranian -backed militia and the Lebanese “Hezbollah” of Syrian fighters, and for their suspicion of providing the “International Coalition” with coordinates and information on militia movements and positions.



The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) is used to hearing the Syrian regime’s empty mantra that it always reserves the right to respond to Israeli attacks. However, regime forces do not hesitate when it comes to shelling opposition positions or bombarding residential and civilian areas inside Syria. The Iranians also dare not launch a large-scale military operation against Israel, as they know full well that they will be facing the might of Israel’s military, so the Iranians seem satisfied with letting its proxies do its bidding by firing only a few rockets from time to time on the occupied Syrian Golan, using the Iranian and Hezbollah-backed movement “Syrian Resistance to Liberate Golan”.


At a time when the Syrian regime “intercepts and downs” Israeli missiles only with a Russian green light, Israel can hit Iranian targets -with the purpose of undermining the Iranian military presence in Syria- and only with Russia’s full consent.


On the other hand, Washington justifies Israel’s stance that “Tel Aviv practices its legal rights to defend its security and interests against the Iranian direct threat”, not to mention the US desire to get Syria free of Iranian forces and militias.


We, at the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), call for keeping the Syrian civilians out of the regional conflicts as the targeted areas and facilities are owned by Syrian people alone, not by Iran or its proxy militias.


SOHR stresses the importance of expelling the Iranian forces and militias from Syria without risking the safety and lives of civilians or damaging Syria’s public properties and facilities.