Security

Locals report major increase in IRGC militia activity in eastern Syria

By Waleed Abu al-Khair

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A screenshot of a video posted by Syrian state TV on February 9 shows members of the al-Haj Qassem Soleimani arriving to Deir Ezzor from Aleppo.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its affiliated militias have increased their presence and activities in the eastern Syria province of Deir Ezzor by way of new recruitment and deployment, local activists say.

IRGC-aligned militias are actively recruiting new members at a centre near the former al-Hana Hospital in Albu Kamal. Pro-regime militias affiliated with the IRGC previously took over the hospital and changed its name to al-Shifa.

They are paying militiamen up to 200,000 Syrian pounds ($390) per month, Deir Ezzor media activist Ammar Saleh said.

The centre is supervised by the IRGC's regional commander, who goes by the name of Haj Askar, he said.

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Members of an IRGC-aligned militia in Syria carry a photo of the late IRGC Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani, in an undated photo. [Syrian Observatory for Human Rights]

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Al-Haj Qassem Soleimani Regiment occupies new facility built by the IRGC in the Deir Ezzor border town of Albu Kamal. [Sada al-Sharqiya]

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A security post of the IRGC-affiliated 47th Regiment militia flies the Syrian flag at the entrance to the city of al-Mayadeen. [Ein al-Furat]

Two new detachments of militia forces have recently been formed: al-Haj Qassem Soleimani Regiment and Hashemiyoun Forces.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a small group of al-Haj Qassem Soleimani elements recently arrived in the area from Aleppo.

"The majority of the elements are from Aleppo and have been stationed in al-Sikka area, in the city of Albu Kamal," Saleh said.

They appear to have formed a local unit operating as "Al-Sheikh" Brigade and have been actively seeking to augment their presence in the area.

According to Observatory sources, the "Al-Sheikh" Brigade commander made it known that he was "personally delegated by the leadership of the IRGC to ask the tribes of the region to form proxy forces affiliated with the IRGC".

He said the IRGC leadership would provide military and material support to these tribesmen, and told tribal elders "that the task of these tribal forces would be to support Iranian militias only in their military operations in the region".

Meanwhile, Saleh said, dozens of militiamen have been transferred into training camps in the Albu Kamal desert, where they are supervised by the Zainabiyoun Brigade, a militia comprised of Pakistani fighters trained by the IRGC.

Militiamen from the Fatemiyoun Division -- Afghan fighters trained by the IRGC -- are also present in the area, as is the Iran-backed Iraqi militia Kataib Hizbullah, the Observatory said.

These forces recently received shipments of arms from Iraq that had been hidden on trucks transporting vegetables and fruit, it said.

Some elements of the IRGC-affiliated 47th Regiment also have been spotted in al-Mayadeen, Saleh said.

Attempts at disguise

"Iranian militias and their proxies are based in positions in rural Deir Ezzor near the Syria-Iraq border," the Observatory said. "These militias redeploy troops and change their positions from time to time for fear of airstrikes."

Militiamen are reportedly being deployed to residential areas in the city of al-Mayadeen and in the border town of Albu Kamal to escape airstrikes that have been targeting their headquarters buildings.

Strict orders have been issued to take down photos of the late IRGC Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani, and to remove Iran-related banners from all military centres, Saleh said.

These are to be replaced with Syrian flags, he said, noting that these orders came in light of recent losses IRGC-aligned militias have suffered and are part of an attempt to avoid being noticed or targeted by raids.

Saleh added that militiamen are occasionally using ambulances for transportation after they leave their posts in the city's outskirts, for fear of being bombed.

The military centre in Jabal al-Bashari, in rural al-Raqa, has been significantly reinforced with militia presence, he said, and the roads leading to the centre have been completely closed.

Families of militiamen affiliated with the IRGC, especially Zainabiyoun and Fatemiyoun, have been transferred from Deir Ezzor to the village of al-Dibsi in western rural al-Raqa and put up in houses confiscated from the area's civilians.

Soft power expansion

"In addition to militias and private security companies, the IRGC is continuing its soft [power] expansion, stepping up the activity of the Iranian Cultural Centre," said Noureddine al-Jammal, a former Albu Kamal political activist.

As part of its efforts to expand Iranian influence, the cultural centre "has funded and sponsored the restoration of a public park in Deir Ezzor, as well as the renovation of the al-Nour Mosque in the city", he said.

A young Syrian known as Amer al-Hussein, who has received training from Hizbullah in Lebanon, also has played a prominent role in recruiting IRGC-affiliated militiamen, al-Jammal noted.

Al-Hussein is known to be close to the IRGC, he said, and works to spread its ideology. He also has a key role in the Imam al-Mahdi Scouts, which is considered a front for IRGC recruitment efforts.

Despite constant IRGC claims that it is there to help civilians, it has been providing money and aid only to members of its militias, while the people of the area it controls suffer from poverty, al-Jammal said.

The IRGC also has been restoring and rebuilding religious institutions and centres that serve its agenda, while entire streets remain in ruins, he said.

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