Disagreements over Smuggling between Regime Forces, Iranian Militias in Syria

National Defense Forces Lose a Number of Their Headquarters to Tehran-backed Militias
Shi'ite militias in Iraq, near the Syria border strip in 2015. Photo credit: AP

Despite the relative calm that the various Syrian regions are experiencing, many disputes have begun to appear in the open between Syrian regime forces and the local and foreign militias that enjoy the regime’s support and have been fighting alongside it over the past years.

These militias were forced to withdraw from a number of their headquarters and hand them over to Iran-backed foreign ones, including the Lebanese Hezbollah, which has been trying to impose its control by force of arms since it entered among the combatants in the Syrian crisis years ago.

What are the causes of these tensions and how will they affect Iranian support for the Bashar al-Assad regime, and what is the official position on what is happening?

A researcher in regional security issues, Muhammad Fawzi, explained that “the core of the dispute that has begun to appear to the public between the Syrian regime on one side and Hezbollah on the other, is related to the Syrian regime’s view of Hezbollah as an actor seeking to strengthen its influence inside Syria beyond the authority of the regime itself.”

In addition, there are a number of reasons that push the development of differences between the two sides, including the issue of border crossings, the party's fortification of many of its military sites, and the adoption of moves that threaten Syria's efforts to normalize its relations with neighboring Arab countries.

Tehran’s Attempt to Calm Allies

In exclusive statements to Majalla, Fawzi elaborated, "These differences, if they escalate into a clash or confrontations between the two sides, may affect Iran's support for the Syrian regime, but Tehran is trying to contain these differences and calm the atmosphere between its two allies, because any escalation in the differences between the two sides at the present time will be at the expense of its geopolitical influence in Syria, and it will cause great losses to Iran.”

The illegal border crossings play the most prominent role in the disputes between the regime forces and Hezbollah as well as other Tehran-backed militias present on Syrian territory, as these militias differ among themselves on the proceeds of smuggling.

This comes in addition to Iran’s attempts to bypass the role of the regime and its forces, which is what caused the dispute to spread extensively during the past few days to new areas located near the governorates of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, close to the Iraqi border.

Smuggling Crossings are a Main Cause of Dispute

In this regard, Fawzi said, "One of the main points of contention between Hezbollah and the Syrian regime forces and its allies located in the border areas is the proceeds of illegal smuggling operations that take place across the border.  Although the smuggling is supervised by both parties, Hezbollah seeks to seize the bulk of the proceeds.”

The proceeds are used by Hezbollah to enhance its military capabilities in light of the restrictions imposed on it which curtail its sources of funding. The funds from the smuggling are also used by Hezbollah for investment activities that guarantee it large and renewable sources of income.

He added that "the Iranian militias seek, by imposing their control over the capabilities and headquarters of some loyalist forces such as the National Defense Forces (NDF), to increase their area of ​​influence in Syria, ensuring the achievement of two strategic goals.”

Especially with the increasing size of the differences between the two sides, the movements of the forces loyal to the regime that the Iranian militias seek to restrict and influence are the National Defense Forces and the Fourth Division of Maher al-Assad, brother of the head of the Syrian regime.

There are major differences between these two armed forces and Hezbollah, which have reached the point of engaging in an armed clash.

Tehran Counting on Russia's Preoccupation

He added, "Tehran is highly reliant on the Russian-Ukrainian crisis and is trying to exploit the Russian preoccupation to expand its influence in Syria, a trend whose features have emerged with reports that Tehran has transferred weapons to separate areas of the Iranian protectorate west of the Euphrates and Palmyra in the Homs countryside, and has established training centers and camps there.”

Fawzi continued to state that, “This comes in addition to the efforts of the Iranian militias to expand their influence in the countryside of Hama governorate as well, by transforming the 47th Brigade located in Jabal Maarin in the southern countryside of the governorate into a military base for the Quds Force, knowing that the 47th Brigade is a tank brigade affiliated with the 11th Division of the Syrian Army, but it has become subject to Iranian control."

Washington Can Curb Smuggling of Militias

He also stressed that "the United States has a major role in confronting the smuggling operations that take place across the Syrian border, and the associated crimes and illegal practices, especially in light of the increase in the movements of its military forces in Syria during the era of current President Joe Biden.  Additionally, the United States can represent a link between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian regime in the field of combating smuggling, thus ensuring the strengthening of the two parties’ ability to curb this phenomenon.  However,  what prevents the effectiveness of Washington’s role in the issue is its preoccupation with the Russian-Ukrainian war.”

National Defense Forces Evacuate Headquarters

Following the escalation of disputes between the Hezbollah militia and the National Defense Forces, the Hezbollah’s fighters attacked the checkpoints of the NDF, which are affiliated with the regime forces in the Damascus countryside and detained a number of its members, according to what local sources from the region told Majalla.

Local sources stated to Majalla that the number of detained National Defense Forces members reached at least seven, and their weapons were completely confiscated. As a result, the rest of the units retreated, after which Hezbollah set up a barrier on the Syrian-Lebanese border.

However, this situation does not differ much from the situation prevailing in the Damascus countryside, as differences continue between the regime forces and Hezbollah there as well.

Sources also indicated to Majalla that the National Defense militia in Eastern Ghouta took an unprecedented step by handing over its military headquarters to Hezbollah, after emptying it of all its members and military equipment, in the Shebaa area near the Damascus International Airport road.

This portends further escalation in the coming period if the Hezbollah militia tries to control other headquarters in the same area, despite the existence of an agreement between the two sides in Homs.

Last week, both the NDF and Hezbollah agreed that the latter's fighters would be deployed in the points surrounding the city of Al-Qaryatayn in the eastern Homs countryside and that the National Defense Forces would be allowed to move from the city of Al-Qaryatayn to the Syrian Badia, and in return, Hezbollah would release detainees from the National Defense Forces who were arrested on April 19.

On April 10th, the regime’s security services arrested three new members of the National Defense Forces from the town of Al-Sukhna in the eastern countryside of Homs, on charges of communicating with ISIS cells, days after the arrest of a leader in the National Defense Forces from the city of Al-Sukhna for the same reason, according to local sources.

Differences Were Preceded by Other Tensions

It is noteworthy that these security tensions are not the first of their kind, as they were preceded by a cautious tension between Hezbollah and the National Defense Forces in several of their headquarters, in Eastern Ghouta and Western Qalamoun. This coincided with persistent attempts by Hezbollah to expand its control and influence over those areas, which led to clashes between them and the killing of members of both parties.

The Iranian-backed Iraqi and Afghan militias have strengthened their presence at the contact points between the Syrian regime-controlled areas and the SDF-controlled areas in the eastern countryside of Raqqa governorate, and at the regular land crossings in the city of Tabqa and the town of al-Akershi, against the backdrop of the recent security tensions between the SDF and the regime forces, as the two sides engaged in sieges in their areas of control in the provinces of Aleppo and Al-Hasakah.

Iran-backed Militias Enter Countryside of Raqqa

Local sources from the region confirmed to Majalla the arrival of Iranian shipments during the past month, some of them loaded with various weapons and ammunition, and others with logistical equipment for training. Additionally, there was the arrival of members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards militia to the points of contact between the areas of the regime and the SDF in Raqqa countryside, where they established a number of military checkpoints on main and secondary roads to monitor the movement of civilians and trucks crossing.

These moves have caused anger and reactions from the people, who describe the entry of Iranian militias into their towns and villages in the countryside of Raqqa as a new "occupation," accusing the Syrian regime of facilitating this task, given that it is the first time that Iranian forces have entered the area in this way.

In the middle of this week, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights sources reported that the Iranian-backed militias had brought in a convoy of dozens of trucks from Iraqi lands to their areas of influence, which are located west of the Euphrates River.

According to sources from the British-based observatory, the number of completely covered trucks was about 34 and headed towards Deir ez-Zor military airport and other places in the farming area in the countryside of al-Mayadin, east of Deir ez-Zor. Those trucks contained weapons and ammunition, including Iranian-made medium-range missiles, in addition to logistical equipment as well.

This came in tandem with escalating Iranian activity within the Syrian territories, in light of Moscow's preoccupation with its war against Ukraine.

Also on April 13th, Tehran-backed militias, including the Afghan "Fatimiyoun Brigade", transported two shipments of weapons and ammunition to the archaeological area of Shibli located in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor, west of the Euphrates River. They also transported two shipments to the eastern desert of Homs.

* Jiwan Soz is a researcher and journalist who focuses on Syrian and Turkish affairs and minorities in the Middle East. He is also a member of Syndicat National des Journalistes (National Syndicate of Journalists [SNJ]). He tweets at @JiwanSoz1


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