BEIRUT -- Iran-backed militias and pro-government forces have been expanding their footprint in Daraya and the surrounding area by acquiring real estate -- either by force or for large sums of money, residents tell Al-Mashareq.
Daraya, a suburb of the capital Damascus, was a hotspot for anti-government protests and saw heavy fighting throughout the civil war.
Lebanese Hizbullah and the Syrian regime's 4th Division, led by President Bashar al-Assad's brother Maher, have settled in the area around the Sayyida Sakina shrine, said Daraya media activist Ahmed al-Sisi.
They are acquiring real estate and houses in the strategic periphery of Daraya, through intermediaries and for large sums of money, he said.
"Hizbullah is also taking advantage of some families' tragic circumstances to buy their homes at low prices," al-Sisi said, adding that the group threatens whoever refuses to sell through intermediaries.
The pro-Iran militias do not maintain military visibility "in public, but currently dominate the city and its environs culturally by holding religious lesson meetings to encourage people to convert to Shiism", al-Sisi added.
This is because Iran seeks to change the identity of the city as well as change it demographically, he said.
Al-Sisi said an officer from the 4th Division has taken over his own family's villa and farm located near the Sayyida Sakina shrine.
"We do not dare to ask that they be vacated."
Hizbullah and other militias have also been looting houses in Daraya for furniture and scrap metal, and hauling some of their loot to villages in Baalbek and southern Lebanon, according to some sources.
Most of the seized homes are located near sites where the Iran-backed militias are stationed and the Sayyida Sakina shrine, the sources say, especially along the Four Seasons Road and the al-Maamel (Factories) Road that leads to the city from the direction of the Daraa-Damascus highway.
An opposition figure in Daraya said on the condition of anonymity that there are other militias in the suburb alongside Hizbullah.
These include the Fatemiyoun Division, Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas and al-Maqdesiyoun, which is infused with Iranian elements, he said.
He said Fatemiyoun elements are stationed on the road to Damascus International Airport and in the towns of Hutaytet al-Turkman, Daraya and Kafr Sousa.
They live in residential complexes and have barracks in all those towns, and some of them are accompanied by their women, he added.
Fatemiyoun elements "repaired and occupied houses" in those areas, the source said, adding that they also erected barriers to prevent entry to their areas and opened offices to recruit Syrians in Daraya and its environs.
'An Iranian encampment'
"Since August 2016, Daraya has been turned into an Iranian encampment housing the Hizbullah militia, Harakat al-Nujaba and the 4th Division," said Syrian researcher and strategic affairs writer Turki Mustafa Hadid.
Hizbullah is deployed at the city's entrances and exits, and has established 12 new military barracks along the city's perimeter.
"Iran deliberately built religious shrines that have no historical basis, such as the small shrine it built in 1999 in the name of Sayyida Sakina near the Daraya municipality building despite the protest of residents," Hadid said.
Iranian officials visited the shrine to express their support for the project, most notably then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in January 2006, he added.
"The shrine is an Iranian settlement and ranks third in terms of importance after the shrines of Sayyida Zainab and Sayyida Ruqayya," he said.
It was heavily damaged by fighting, with Shia militias exploiting the damage to encourage sectarian mobilisation and recruit fighters under the pretext of defending holy sites, he said.
Hadid said the People's Assembly of Syria, by ratifying the Urban Renewal Law of 2018, commonly known as Decree 10, made it easier for non-Syrians -- and by extension elements of Iran-backed militias -- to acquire real estate in the country.
What is taking place in Daraya is "systematic violations by the regime's forces, backed by Shia militias, which have been ongoing since the last forced displacement of residents in August 2016", said Fadel Abdul Ghani, head of the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
After 2016, regime forces prevented residents from returning to Daraya until the beginning of 2019, at which time they permitted the conditional return of some families provided they obtain approval from the security services, he said.
Some even had to bribe the security elements who man the military checkpoints surrounding the city, Abdul Ghani said.
Residents were also blackmailed into selling their properties to the militias, he added.
The co-ordination between the regime forces and Iran-backed militias "is clear and documented", he said.
Sources and witnesses contacted by the Syrian Network for Human Rights said the real estate sales that take place in Daraya do not take place directly between the owners and the militias.
Rather, they happen through intermediaries and figures affiliated with the regime, Abdul Ghani said, including the head of the municipal council in Daraya, Marwan Obeid.
According to the residents' testimonies, "all of the sale transactions, which have escalated recently, involved lands surrounding the [Sakina] shrine in exchange for huge sums of money, as well as the area near the Daraa highway", he said.
"Consequently, there will be no safe and dignified return for the displaced and the refugees as long as the regime continues to harness its forces, decrees and legislations to seize property," he said.