The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights

Iran’s presence in Syria in March 2023 | 50 fatalities in aerial and ground attacks…escalating military movements in western Euphrates…violations and infightings in Damascus and Aleppo

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 March 2023.



Human casualties


SOHR activists documented the death of 50 Iranian-backed Syrian and non-Syrian militiamen in aerial and ground attacks, explosions and infightings in Syria in March 2023; they are as follows:


  • 19 militiamen were killed in US airstrikes on Deir Ezzor city and countryside.


  • 11 militiamen were killed in Israeli strikes.


  • Three non-Syrian militiamen, including two members of the Lebanese Hezbollah, were killed by a landmine explosion.


  • Four Syrian militiamen were killed in factional infightings.


  • Seven militiamen were killed in an explosion in a weapons and ammunitions warehouse in Deir Ezzor city.


  • Three militiamen were killed by ISIS.


  • A militiaman was assassinated in Daraa.


  • A Syrian militiaman was assassinated in Deir Ezzor.


  • Commander in “Saraya Al-Quds Movement,” the military wing of Al-Jehad Al-Islami Movement, was assassinated in Rif Dimashq.



Violations in Damascus and infightings in Aleppo


On March 10, SOHR sources reported growing tension in Nebl town, inhabited by residents of Shiite community, in the northern countryside of Aleppo, because of violent clashes between two Iranian-backed local groups. The clashes, which started hours ago, followed a dispute over smuggling operations between Nebl and Afrin which is controlled by the “National Army,” amid growing tension. Meanwhile, the command of Iranian-backed militias in that area sent special forces to the town to break up the violent clashes.


a day later, armed clashes renewed between two groups of Iran-backed local militias of the “Omran Family” and “Zaghir Family”, due to disputes over a truck carrying drugs in Nobl city in northern Aleppo countryside, where three people of the Zaghir Family were killed in the clashes. Accordingly, the number of people killed in the renewed clashes between groups of the Iran-backed local militias has risen to four people in Nobl city.


While on March 27, five persons, including two children, were injured in clashes with light and heavy weapons between factions affiliated to regime forces and their proxy militias backed by Iran on one hand, and members of Palestinian “Liwaa Al-Quds” on the other in Bab Al-Nayrab area in Aleppo, where no details were reported about the reasons behind the clashes and the material damage caused by those clashes.


Smuggling operations


The Lebanese Hezbollah dominates border areas between Syria and Lebanon, which hosts the most prominent crossings used for smuggling between the two countries. Fellitah road, Rankous road, the road between Al-Tofayl and Al-Assal and the road to Al-Zamarani crossing, which is near Qarrah town in Rif Dimashq, are all used by Hezbollah for smuggling drugs and people.


It is worth noting that the border areas near these crossings are dominated by the Lebanese Hezbollah which established plants and laboratories in Syrian territory for producing drugs. Hezbollah’s smuggling operations are run by tens of young men and smugglers from the villages and towns of the western barren mountains of Qalamoun.


Also, the 4th Division share influence with Hezbollah in several border areas to protect the roads used for smuggling and prevent residents from reaching some sites where Hezbollah is stationed. Hezbollah and the 4th Division are the largest network for smuggling people to and from Syria, exploiting their influence and predominance in an area stretching from Iraq to Lebanon sea from which smuggling boats (death boats) launch to Cyprus, Greece and Sicily, as well as helping Syrians from different areas to reach Lebanon in return for large sums of money.


Speaking to SOHR, a man known as Z. H. said that he and his relatives headed to Lebanon this year for work, where they reached Lebanon through the same road used by all those who wanted to reach Lebanon from Idlib.

Z. H. said “I and a group of young people crossed through different regions of influence, where we set off from areas controlled by Turkish-backed factions and passed by SDF-controlled areas and regime-controlled areas on their way to Lebanon. A man working for the 4th Division and Hezbollah received the group at the border and took us to Rif Dimashq and then to Lebanon in only one day. During the journey, we did not blocked or inspected by regime forces. The smuggler took 600 USD from me for this journey.”


It is worth noting that region experiences frequent kidnaps by smugglers and individuals working for the Lebanese Hezbollah to collect ransoms.


On the other hand, Iran opened an office in Al-Hasakah city to recruit young men in its militias, taking advantage of the state of poverty of most Syrians. According to reliable SOHR sources, the office is located in the Security Square in Al-Hasakah city, and is recruiting young men for 200 USDs, where nearly 80 young men volunteered via the office.



Noticeable deployment in Palmyra, amid ongoing reinforcement


In the last week of March, reinforcement of the Lebanese “Hezbollah” was brought in to Palmyra city from Homs. The reinforcement included tanks, personnel carriers and four-wheel-drive vehicles.


Iranian-backed militias, including the Afghan “Liwaa Fatemiyoun,” the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Lebanese Hezbollah and Syrian militiamen who have been recently trained by Hezbollah, have been expanding in broad areas throughout regime-controlled areas in Palmyra in the eastern countryside of Homs. According to SOHR sources, Iranian-backed militias and Hezbollah have been deployed in the area to the east of Palmyra fortress, which had been dominated by the regime’s intelligence branch, and the most of the geographical area of Homs desert.


SOHR sources have also confirmed that Iranian-backed militias are deployed in Al-Alyanah area which is nearly 30 kilometres away from the 55 kilometre de-confliction zone which hosts the International Coalition’s base of Al-Tanaf.


Moreover, Lebanese Hezbollah moved weapons and ammunition from its warehouses in Al-Kesuwah and its surrounding areas in western Rif Dimashq to the eastern countryside of Homs, where four trucks loaded with ammunitions and medium and heavy weapons, such as short and medium-range missiles and heavy machineguns, arrived in that region.


According to SOHR sources, the trucks stopped in the vicinity of Marhatan village, 40 kilometres away from Palmyra in the eastern countryside of Homs, where other positions of Lebanese Hezbollah are located. The weapons were stored in underground warehouses that the militia had dug over the past year.


Furthermore, Lebanese Hezbollah militia started to lure residents and people of the region and surrounding areas, east of Homs province, to join its tanks, where more than 22 people were recruited. Hezbollah trains those people on using weapons in a military field of Hezbollah nearby Marhatan village. The new recruits’ mission would be guarding the positions of Hezbollah for a salary of 250 thousand SYP every recruit, as well as other privileges for those who are wanted by regime forces.


On the other hand, three Iranian-backed militiamen, including a commander and a member of the Lebanese Hezbollah, were killed and two other militiamen were injured in the explosion of a landmine in Al-Sukhnah area in east Homs desert on March 27.



Developments in west Euphrates region tops the events


Military movements


Iranian- backed Afghan “Liwaa Fatemiyoun” militia deployed, on March 7, four cannons and hided them among palm trees in an orchard in the vicinity of Al-Mayadeen city, “the capital of Iranian militias in Syria,” after cleaning and repairing them.


According to SOHR sources, Iranian-backed militias, including Afghan “Liwaa Fatemiyoun,” were put on high alert over concerns about possible attacks on their military positions in the countryside of Deir Ezzor.


On March 10, Iranian-backed militias imposed more strict security procedures in their posts in Deir Ezzor city, following the explosion, which took place in a weapons and ammunitions warehouse affiliated to those militias in Al-Hemaydiyah neighbourhood in the city on Wednesday. According to SOHR sources, Iranian-backed militias increased the number of local militiamen in every guarding shift from ten militiamen to 20, increased the number of guards in their posts and increased the salaries of militiamen from 350,000 SYP to 1,000,000 SYP to avoid their resentment and make sure that they will not give up working for Iranian-backed militias and join Russian-backed militias in light of the ongoing cold war between the two sides.


While on March 11, Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias returned to their positions and posts in Al-Bokamal and Al-Mayadeen cities in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor, a month after their withdrawal from them in February. “Hezbollah” and afghan “Liwaa Fatmiyoun” militia have returned to their positions in the security zone in Al-Mayadeen city, “the capital of the militias west of Euphrates.” Also, Lebanese Hezbollah has returned to its positions in Al-Bokamal border city with Iraq due to the prominent strategic importance of the city and the crossings between Syria and Iraq. Furthermore, IRGC returned to their positions in Al-Bokamal and Al-Mayadeen cities.


Also, on March 12, buses carrying members of Iranian-backed militias arrived to Al-Mayadin city “the capital of Iranian militias in Syria.” According to reliable SOHR sources, four buses that had the sentence of “Friends” on them, and three “Pick Up” 4×4 cars arrived to Al-Mayadin city and headed towards Al-Bo Kamal city on borders with Iraq. It is worth noting that the buses were coming from Deir Ezzor city, and they carried over 200 members in civilian uniforms.


In the meantime, SOHR sources reported on March 22 that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards militia used a building near their positions as a new headquarters, and moved the guarding (Al-Hirasa) checkpoint to another position near the new headquarters within their areas near Al-Bala’om Square at the entrance of Al-Mayadin (the capital of Iranian militias) in Deir Ezzor in fear of any attacks, coinciding with the installation of surveillance cameras in the vicinity of the headquarters by the 4th Division in the same position.


On March 26, Iranian militias brought military reinforcements to Al-Mayadin city (the capital of Iranian militias in eastern of Syria), where the reinforcements comprise five vehicles carrying members, and entered the region this evening. The reinforcements also comprise dozens of members, coming from Hatla village and areas of the militias in Deir Ezzor countryside and Al-Raqqa countryside.


A day later, March 27, Iranian-backed militias brought in reinforcement to their military headquarters in Al-Mayadeen, “the capital of Iranian militias east of Syria,” and Al-Bokamal, in addition to Ain Ali area within areas controlled by regime forces and Iranian militias in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor. According to sources, the reinforcement included 250 Syrian members coming from Hatlah and areas in east Euphrates. The sources revealed that Iranian-backed militias have intelligence information that the US forces intend to move fighters who oppose the Iranian presence in the region to target their positions. On a relate context, SOHR sources reported that Iranian militias have installed short-range surface-to-surface advanced missiles platforms in Ain Ali area near Al-Mayadeen city and some other posts, while the militias’ members received orders to target the base of Al-Omar oil field, which is the biggest base of “International Coalition” in east of Syria, if positions of Iranian militias in Deir Ezzor city and countryside were targeted.


Similarly, on March 30, IRGC turned the “Al-Baath Vanguards” encampment in the western side of Deir Ezzor city into “Revolutionary Guard’s Vanguards,” where the camp hosts the largest Iranian militias gathering. According to sources, 64 trucks loaded with equipment and military logistical supplies entered the encampment of “Al-Baath Vanguards” since the earthquake that hit Syria and Turkey on February 6, under a cover of the delivery of aid supplies through the border crossing with Iraq. Several militias, including the Afghan “Liwaa Fatmiyoun” which moved the training of its recently-recruited members from Ayash warehouses, fearing strikes by unknown aircrafts or the “International Coalition,” are stationed in the “Al-Baath Vanguards” encampment.


In the eastern side of the encampment, there is a special building of the Lebanese “Hezbollah,” where meetings of commanders are held, as well as the presence of rocket launchers of Hezbollah.


“Al-Baath vanguards” encampment is located near Al-Dahiyah neighbourhood, in which the headquarters of “Liwaa Al-Baqer” and the youth residences, which contains nearly 100 families of the Iranian and Afghani members who came for more than a year, are located.





Truffle, a seasonal delicacy looks like mushrooms and grows in the areas that is subjected to heavy rain, is a source of income for many poor families, as it is sold at very high prices. Those families go in large trucks to the desert where they search for truffle.


In this context, SOHR has obtained a copy of a video footage showing regime soldiers selling truffle in Al-Mayadeen city, after collecting it in military vehicles, which are supposed to be used for military purposes only and serving Syrian people. This comes as a part of “Shabiha-like” behaviour adopted by regime soldiers who continue their oppression and violations against Syrians.


Truffle pickers risk their lives by traveling to remote areas in the Syrian desert to search for truffle, where they are exposed to explosions of old ordnance and attacks by ISIS and Iranian-backed militias.


Meanwhile, checkpoints of the 4th Division continue clamping down on residents in Al-Mayadeen city, the “capital of Iranian-backed militias in east Syria,” in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor, where members stationed at these checkpoints which are deployed at the city’s entrances impose taxies and levies on all commercial trucks transporting goods and food to the city; this, in turn, has contributed to raising prices of basic products considerably.


On March 12, a few days before Ramadan, SOHR activists monitored noticeable recession and decrease in purchasing power in the market of Al-Mayadeen city which is controlled by regime forces and Iranian-backed militias, because of the unaffordable prices of most of goods and products in light of the ongoing oppression by the 4th Division, headed by Maher Al-Assad the brother of the regime president. It is worth noting that taxes and levies imposed on the 4th Division’s checkpoints cover trucks carrying vegetables and medicines, despite the insufficient amounts of vegetables and medicines delivered to the city.


SOHR activists monitored a list of prices of some vegetables as follows:


  • Eggplant: 2,500 SYP per kilogram.


  • Potato: 2,300 SYP per kilogram.


  • Lettuce: 500 SYP per one.


  • Parsley: 500 SYP per a bundle.


According to SOHR sources, members of the 4th Division impose varying taxies and levies on the trucks according to the amount of goods they carry, where a share of 1.5 to 3 percent of the value of goods is taken by the checkpoints’ members from every truck, which estimated by 5,000,000 to 7,000,000 SYP.


On March 13, a foodstuff merchant from “Al-Bosaraya” tribe in Al-Mayadeen agreed with a person, who is the leader of “Usud Al-Ekaydat” forces in the area, on selling a large villa of two floors and a basement in Al-Arbaen street near the security zone of the Iranian-backed militias. According to SOHR sources, a Lebanese commander in the Lebanese “Hezbollah” called “Abu Ali,” who works for IRGC and is responsible of organising external correspondence, bought the villa for 265,000,000 SYP, and he also bought a house near the villa. The sale process was done on March 10, where the commander turned the villa into headquarters.


The foodstuff merchant lives in the capital, Damascus, and has strong relations with regime officers, and he sold the villa over concerns about being seized, like many other houses in the area were taken over. Iranian-backed militias in Al-Mayadeen city focus on buying real-estate, especially in Al-Arbaen street and its surroundings and the vicinity of the Iranian hospital, through luring people by offering large sums of money. Since early 2023, Iranian-backed militias managed to buy at least 29 real-estate units in Al-Mayadeen city.



Iranian-backed militias’ ongoing efforts to entrench their presence further


In mid-March, the Iranian culture centre in Deir Ezzor city started new training courses on first aid, barbering and business administration, as well as literacy program and language courses, including English, French and Persian. According to SOHR sources, security cameras were installed inside the Iranian culture centre in Deir Ezzor city, which witnessed considerable turnout, as 200 to 300 young people joined those courses. It is worth noting that the Iranian culture centre provides breakfast meals, recreational trips for students in parks rehabilitated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.


On March 17, “Al-Qaterjy” militia opened the door for people to join its ranks in Deir Ezzor, and opened a new checkpoint for oil tanks near Al-Fondokiya School on the road between Deir Ezzor and Damascus. According to reliable SOHR sources, “Al-Qaterjy” started recruiting more young men by opening an office in Al-Dahiya neighbourhood in Deir Ezzor, with ongoing security patrols searching for young men for the compulsory service. The monthly salaries provided by “Al-Qaterjy” militia for new recruitments reached 500,000 Syrian Liras, and a food basket each month, amid huge turnout by young men.


While on March 19, a senior commander in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) known as “Haj Abbas” met with local militiamen of IRGC close to him in Al-Mayadeen. “Haj Abbas” asked the local militiamen to communicate with every civilian whose real-estate units are seized by Iranian-backed militias, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Iraqi Hezbollah, the Afghan “Liwaa Fatemiyoun” and the Pakistani “Liwaa Zainebiyoun,” and inform them to provide owner deeds of these real-estate units to the local militiamen and mention the body seizing these units. “Haj Abbas” vowed to expel Iranian-backed militiamen from these units on condition that they remain exclusively in possession of the local militiamen who are close to him.



Explosion triggers public anger


On March 8, SOHR activists documented the death of seven people: three Syrians, three non-Syrians and an unidentified man, in an explosion in a warehouse affiliated to Iranian-backed militias in a residential neighbourhood in Deir Ezzor city. The explosion also left 15 people injured.


Following the explosion, SOHR sources reported growing public anger and discontent among residents in Deir Ezzor city regarding the presence of a weapons warehouse affiliated to Iranian-backed militias in a the residential neighbourhood of Al-Hemaydiyah. According to SOHR source, the residents had thought that the warehouse was used for storing foodstuffs, before they found out that it contained Iranian-made weapons. The residents also expressed their anger at the inaction of regime authorities which never attempted to sent these weapons, which have posed a considerable threat to the safety and lives of the residents, away from the city.


While, on March 14, Iranian-backed militias launched a security campaign yesterday in Deir Ezzor and Al-Mayadeen cities in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor and in Aleppo city, arresting 17 Iranian-backed Syrian militiamen and regime soldiers and officers: 12 in Deir Ezzor and Al-Mayadeen cities and five others in Aleppo city. According to SOHR sources, the militias later released an officer who had been arrested during the campaign. This follows the disclosure of accurate information and details about the transporting of weapons from Iraq to Syria, movements of Iranian-backed militias in Syrian territory and military positions in areas under their control. The campaign also follows the explosion which took place on March 8 in a plant for manufacturing missiles in Al-Hemaydiyah neighbourhood in Deir Ezzor city, where the Iranian-backed militias accuse Syrian militiamen, soldiers and officers of “leaking information about the militias to foreign bodies.”


Iranian-backed militias started rehabilitating the same missiles and ammunitions warehouse in Al-Hemaydiyah neighbourhood in Deir Ezzor city on March 17, which had witnessed a violent explosion on March 8. According to SOHR sources, many families living near the warehouse evacuated their houses, fearing renewed attacks, amid a growing public anger over the presence of a warehouse containing missiles and weapons in the residential neighbourhood.


Separately, a man close to Iranian-backed militias died of the injury he had sustained in an armed attack carried out on March 11 by unknown gunmen on a motorcycle in Al-Mayadeen city. According to SOHR sources, the man, who was in military uniform when he was attacked, was taken by a patrol of the criminal security service to the Iranian-hospital of Al-Shefaa shortly after the attack, but he died of his injuries. After the man’s death, his body was transported to an unknown destination in an ambulance affiliated to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, while senior officials came from the security zone to the hospital.



Ongoing Israeli and US strikes


As Israel and unidentified aircraft continue to violate Syria’s sovereignty, SOHR documented seven attacks in March: six by Israel and one by US aircraft, that left 34 people dead, many others injured and heavy material losses. Here are further details of these attacks:


  • March 24: US fighter jets executed two rounds of airstrikes, targeting weapons and ammunitions warehouses in the “grain centre” and “rural development centre” opposite the “Officers Residences” in Harabesh neighbourhood in Deir Ezzor city and other positions in Al-Bokamal desert and on the southern outskirts of Al-Mayadeen city, killing 19 combatants: 11 Iranian-backed Syrian militiamen, five Iranian-backed non-Syrian militiamen and three regime soldiers.


  • March 2: A regime military position to the north of Burj Al-Zira’a in “Bier Ajam” village near the Israeli–Syrian ceasefire line in the liberated part of the Syrian Golan came under attack with two shells fired by Israel tanks, but no causalities were reported.


  • March 7: Israel targeted the runway and perimeter of Aleppo international airport with two rounds of missiles fired from the sea. Regime air-defences managed to intercept eight Israeli missiles, while three reached their targets: the main runway and perimeter: putting the airport out of service. The attack also killed three people: one Syrian officer and two unidentified persons.


  • March 12: Israeli fighter jets struck an ammunitions warehouse affiliated to Iranian-backed militias in the western countryside of Masyaf and a position of regime air-defence forces between Hama and Tartys, killing three combatants: a captain who was killed in the air-defence forces’ position and two unidentified persons who were killed in the warehouse. The attack also left two persons injured and destroyed the warehouse.


  • March 22: Israel targeted Aleppo international airport with six missiles, where five missiles hit their targets in the vicinity of the airport and a warehouse containing Iranian-made weapons. SOHR activists reported hearing loud explosions, while the airport was put out of service. The attack left four Iranian-backed militiamen, including two non-Syrians, dead.


  • March 30: Five IRGC officers, including a senior officer, were killed in Israeli strikes on a building near Al-Motahalik Al-Janobi (the Southern Bypass) nearby Damascus following the arrival of Iranian-backed militiamen to that region. The attack also left a regime soldier injured and caused material losses.


  • March 31: Israeli missile hit positions of regime forces and Iranian-backed militias in the area between Qatna and Jadidat Artouz in the south-west of the capital, Damascus. Meanwhile, SOHR activists reported hearing successive explosions in the area, as the missiles hit a weapons and ammunitions warehouse. Regime air defences managed to intercept at least one Israeli missile. However, no casualties were reported.



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.