BEIRUT -- Deadly clashes broke out in the Sayyida Zainab shrine area of southern Damascus this month among militias affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in the latest round of internecine violence.
A number of militiamen were killed May 7 as Iranian, Afghan and Pakistani elements of two IRGC-affiliated militias fought among themselves, the Syrian opposition outlet Sawt al-Asima (Voice of the Capital) reported.
Seven non-Syrian militiamen were killed during the brief, violent clash, which lasted around half an hour, Sawt al-Asima regional managing editor Ahmed Obeid told Al-Mashareq.
A 7-year-old girl lost her life, he said, and 13 other civilians were injured.
Tensions that led to the incident were reportedly rooted in a dispute over the sale of narcotics between two IRGC-aligned groups, the outlet reported.
One of the groups had encroached on the other's "territory" and sold drugs there, it said, which caused the subsequent conflict.
In February, clashes broke out in the same area between a group of Iraqi visitors and local residents, Sawt al-Asima reported.
The conflict was reportedly ignited when Iraqi visitors insulted some residents as food aid was being distributed in the area, observers said.
Residents of Damascus say Iran-backed militias control the Sayyida Zainab area, and have turned it into a suburb "similar to the southern suburb of Beirut", a historic stronghold of Lebanese Hizbullah.
Lawless area of Damascus
Hizbullah has been flooding Syria with drugs, Syrian activists told Al-Mashareq, noting that areas around Damascus are starting to resemble the party's Lebanese strongholds in terms of the illicit activity that goes on there.
Obeid said the Sayyida Zainab area is controlled by the IRGC and Syrian regime.
There are Iranian, Afghan, Pakistani, Iraqi and Lebanese Hizbullah militia elements in the area, which is divided into sectors, he said, with each militia "authorised" to sell a pre-specified amount of drugs within its own sector.
Drug trade in the Sayyida Zainab area and other IRGC-controlled areas "is rampant among militia elements, who share the profits with their commanders", he said.
Obeid said the Sayyida Zainab area has become as lawless as the southern suburb of Beirut, with a dense population mix of Sunni Syrians, Iraqis and groups of Shia from Foua, Kefraya, al-Nubl and al-Zahraa.
"It is unfortunate that militias are openly dealing in drugs there and in Damascus and its countryside, where they are sold at coffee and tea stalls," he said.
He attributed the marked increase in the sale of drugs in southern Damascus to funding shortages the IRGC and Hizbullah are facing, as both are reliant on Iran for financial backing and as Iran is in the throes of an economic crisis.
IRGC-aligned militias clash
According to a Syrian journalist and activist who asked to remain anonymous, Hizbullah smuggles large amounts of drugs, especially hashish and Acetyl fentanyl, an opioid commonly known as "fake heroin", into the Damascus area.
The drugs are sold in the Sayyida Zainab area, he said, which has become a notorious marketplace for narcotics.
Clashes occasionally occur between Hizbullah elements and the Syrian army's 4th Division over the percentage of profits, as the 4th Division demands an increasing share in exchange for facilitating sales, he said.
A Deir Ezzor activist who goes by the name "Khaled" said clashes among Iran-backed militias "are related to the control over checkpoints along the banks of the Euphrates".
An armed conflict was recently reported in the town of Mahkan between the pro-regime National Defence Forces militia and members of the Fatemiyoun Division, which is comprised of Afghan fighters, he said.
In early April, clashes broke out in the Deir Ezzor border town of Albu Kamal when the IRGC-aligned Liwa al-Sheikh militia attempted to search a car belonging to Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas, he said.
The conflict killed a Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas element, injured seven other militiamen and a number of civilians, and damaged nearby houses, Khaled said.
He said the "green belt" area in rural Albu Kamal has been the scene of armed clashes between elements of the IRGC's 147th Brigade and Iran-backed Iraqi militias.