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Iran is putting down roots in eastern Syria, outcompeting Assad’s regime in signing up fighters

Growing Iranian influence in strategic Deir al-Zour province aims at projecting Tehran’s power across the region

Syrian army tanks are seen in Deir al-Zour city in 2012 when army forces fought to reclaim the city from anti-government rebels. (Reuters)
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BEIRUT — When the Syrian military opened offices in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour last month to enlist former rebels and repentant army defectors, almost no one showed up. So few in fact that, according to a local news site, Syrian security officers had to pull able-bodied passersby inside in hopes of registering them.

While Syria had promised forgiveness and a fresh start to many young men as part of broader reconciliation efforts, the initiative has faced a major obstacle: Iranian-linked militias active in the province have been offering a more attractive alternative, according to local experts and a former militia member.

Iran has been playing the long game in Deir al-Zour, successfully recruiting local Syrians to allied militias, providing services the deeply distrusted government cannot deliver and putting down roots in a strategic province that could further Tehran’s regional interests even after the Syrian civil war eventually ends and Iran’s support for President Bashar al-Assad is no longer as vital.

Iran has been building schools, opening schools and distributing food baskets, local experts said. It has tried to convert mosques in the Sunni Muslim province to Shiite Islam, the official religion of Iran, and while few Syrians have actually converted, the Shiite call to prayer is now heard for the first time.

When a young man named Abu Khadija joined an Iranian-backed militia three years ago, he wasn’t motivated by religion or ideology, he recalled. He wanted the pay and benefits. And like many of the young Syrians who join the militias, he saw them as “the only solution to escape the army,” said Abu Khadija, who spoke on the condition that his full name not be used, for fear of retaliation.

While the Syrian army in Deir al-Zour pays a monthly salary of 27,000 Syrian pounds, about $7.50, the Iranian-backed militias offer more than double that, with even higher pay in places like Bukamal city on the Iraqi border, he said. Abu Khadija, now 26, said he joined a brigade made up of 100 Syrians who largely guard Iranian warehouses in Deir al-Zour. They were assigned rotations of 15 days on duty and 15 days off. By contrast, the Syrian army often sends soldiers far from home for at least two months at a time, with home leaves of only five days, he said.

The militia ID card entitles the fighters to a monthly food basket, which includes sugar, cooking oil, rice, canned tuna and beans, he said. The cartons are emblazoned with a picture of the slain Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani, who was assassinated in Iraq by U.S. forces two years ago, and a label in Arabic and Farsi that says “a gift from the Islamic resistance.” Cardholders are also offered free flights to Damascus every Monday and Thursday on Iranian aircraft, and those wanting to visit, for any reason, can register for the flight a day before.

The ID card not only allowed him to carry a weapon but more importantly, he said, protects him from being detained or interrogated by the Syrian army, which is detested and feared by much of the local population.

For much of Syria’s war, Iranian-backed militias have been crucial supporters of the Syrian government. But in some places, particularly in the east of the country, they are also competitors for local influence.

Iran has put a priority on consolidating its position in Deir al-Zour province, with various allied militias essentially taking control over key cities. Most important, perhaps, is Bukamal, also known as Albu Kamal, situated along the Euphrates River at the Iraqi border. This city represents a strategic crossing for Iran, which has sought to establish a “land bridge” — from Iran, across Iraq and Syria and into Lebanon — allowing for the transfer of military equipment to Tehran’s allies, most notably the militant Hezbollah movement in Lebanon. The movement of materiel and fighters along this land bridge gives Iran several strategic advantages, including a greater ability to confront its nemesis Israel.

To ensure that this corridor remains in friendly hands, Iran has been conducting its multipronged campaign to win residents’ support. “The Iranians want to create a popular base loyal to them in case they have to leave someday,” said Ammar al-Hamad, a Syria-based analyst specializing in tribal affairs in the east and northeast of the country.

Myriad militias operate in Deir al-Zour, some aligned with the Syrian government and its ally Russia in addition to those aligned with Iran. Several of the Iranian-linked groups are staffed and led locally by Syrians, who receive orders from more senior Iranian commanders, according to a local activist who goes by the name Abu Maria. He spoke on the condition that his full name not be published because of fear for his safety. Abu Maria estimated there are also about a dozen significant Iranian-aligned militias in the province composed of foreign fighters, including Iranians as well as Afghans and Pakistanis.

Abu Khadija said residents in his area have largely accepted Iranian hegemony, mostly because the Iranian-backed militias clearly have more power on the ground than the Syrian army. Residents even file complaints with Iranian officials when government soldiers cause problems. “They have more influence than the army,” he said.

Much of Deir al-Zour’s population is wary of the Syrian army, which is infamous for committing atrocities during the 10-year civil war. There is no such fear of the Iranians. “They are trying to win people over, unlike the army,” he said. “If the army wants something from someone, they break down the front door. The Iranians don’t do such things.”

Assad and his regime have raided and seized dozens of businesses, even targeting those that stuck by him

Omar Abu Layla, a native of the area who heads a monitoring network called Deir Ezzor 24, said, “There is no real power on the ground that is as strong as Iran in residents’ eyes." Iran is aware of the strong local anti-Shiite sentiments, he said, but added, “Iran is not stupid: It makes sure it doesn’t gain people’s enmity.”

Still, sporadic protests against the Iranian presence have broken out on the opposite side of the Euphrates River, where territory remains outside Syrian government control and the U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces are in control. The modest protests, usually held by Syrians displaced from other areas, demand the right to return home and ouster of the Iranians, said Abu Layla.

As part of the effort to win over the local population, the Iranians have worked to help improve living conditions. The Jihad al-Binaa organization has been reconstructing schools, setting up field hospitals and opening preschools in Deir al-Zour as well as in the cities of Aleppo and Hama elsewhere in government-controlled parts of Syria, according to local reports.

Meanwhile, the Iranian Cultural Center has been rehabilitating mosques in an effort to spread Shiite Islam and, during the holy month of Ramadan, held Farsi language and Iranian history classes, offering financial incentives to families who finished the course, said Abu Layla. The center has also set up Shiite shrines to attract pilgrims and paid for repairs to a park destroyed during hostilities.

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