With Moscow preoccupied with the Ukrainian war and the withdrawal of some of its forces and senior military leaders from Syrian territory after an intervention that lasted for years and prevented the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Iranian intervention in Syria gained more space after the protests demanding his departure erupted in mid-March of 2011. Moscow and Tehran later intervened and sided with Assad as the main supporters, but today the situation is different, and Tehran is attempting to capitalize on Russia's concern and expand further into Syrian territory. How is that possible?
At the moment, Iranian forces on Syrian territory and the local militias that support them refuse to share power in their areas of control with any other forces, even those from the Syrian regime's army. In the Homs countryside, Iranian forces and militias launched a large-scale security campaign after installing additional checkpoints to monitor pedestrian and car movement without explaining why.
Local sources in the Homs countryside town of Al-Qaryatayn told Majalla: "Iranian forces and their militias are heavily present at the town's entrances and exits, as they have been meticulously searching pedestrians and their cars for days in order to secure weapon supply routes for their militias in other Syrian areas."
In addition to Al-Qaryatayn, the militias supported by Tehran have concentrated in the ancient city of Palmyra, also located in the Homs countryside, where it has taken the grain silos building, located 10 kilometers east of the city, as a new headquarters for its members, especially given its location on the Palmyra-Deir ez-Zor international road.
MILITIAS ARE BIGGER THAN STATES
Wejdan Abdul Rahman, a political analyst and expert on Iranian affairs, believes that “the Iranian forces and militias backed by Tehran have more power than the state's power, which includes not only Syria but also neighboring Iraq.”
“For example, Iraq held parliamentary elections about ten months ago, but the government has yet to be formed because militias loyal to Tehran on Iraqi soil refuse to allow this. Instead, they impose themselves by force of arms and also target US bases in the Kurdistan region, such as Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, as well as the Iraqi capital, Baghdad,” Abdul Rahman told Majalla.
OVERSIGHT OF MILITIA SECURITY AND WEAPONS SHIPMENTS
“There is no doubt that the inspection that is taking place in the countryside of Homs and other Syrian regions is being done to enhance the security of the Iranian presence in these areas and to provide security for arms shipments because they were previously targeted while passing through several roads, which is why these militias are checking the identity of passersby today,” he added.
The Iranian-backed Fatimiyoun militia, as well as the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, took over the task of monitoring their security checkpoints in the countryside of Homs, without any role for the local elements who joined the Syrian militias backed by Tehran, according to military sources revealed to Majalla.
In conjunction with the intensification of these militias' checkpoints in the Homs countryside, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights revealed that these militias had detained at least 30 of their local members who hold Syrian citizenship, despite their refusal to participate in the process of clearing the Syrian Badia of ISIS members.
According to other local sources, at least 42 local members were detained by militias loyal to Tehran after refusing to participate in a military operation in the Syrian desert.
THE ASSAD REGIME NO LONGER CONTROLS THESE AREAS
The Iranian militias are combing the Al-Bukamal desert and two surrounding areas for elements of the ISIS organization, which frequently targets these militias and seeks recruits from the Syrian regime's army in those areas.
The arrest of dozens of local members by the Iranian militia was interpreted by Abdul Rahman as "a step that indicates the Assad regime's loss of control over those areas."
ASSAD ENTRUSTED THE MILITARY DUTIES TO IRANIAN MILITIAS
According to Abdul Rahman, “Assad has entrusted the military duties in those areas to groups affiliated with the Iranian regime, especially since his survival in power has been based on the presence of Iranian forces on Syrian territory, as well as militias supported by them.”
“The fact that these militias were founded by Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the so-called Quds Force, who was killed more than two and a half years ago, demonstrates their strength. Soleimani was able to bring Assad to Iran and sit with him instead of the then Foreign Minister, Muhammad Javad Zarif, who resigned later before returning to his duties,” he continued.
In addition to imposing security control through force of arms, Iranian forces and militias supported by them are implementing demographic changes in their areas of control within Syrian territory. According to Majalla and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, they have relocated the families of their fighters to areas in the countryside of Hama Governorate.
According to the sources, over the past few days, the Afghan Fatimiyoun militia has settled some of its fighters' families in homes in the villages of Sheikh Hilal, Al-Rahjan and Al-Shakouzeh in the northeastern countryside of Hama. These are villages whose members belonged to the Al-Mawali clan, which left that area when those militias regained control over them after clan members had supported a military operation launched by the Syrian regime on those areas earlier.
The Afghan Fatimiyoun militia has previously settled the families of its fighters in several displaced areas, including the city of Palmyra and its countryside, as well as other areas in the countryside of Deir ez-Zor, the eastern countryside of Aleppo, and the vicinity of the Sayeda Zainab area south of Damascus.
“The demographic change is a natural thing for an occupying force that has the power and the ability through which it tries to compensate for the population ratio because we know that the majority of the Syrian population is of the Sunni component,” Abdul Rahman said in this context.
“As a result, in the areas it controls, the Iranian regime is attempting to alter demographics, as was done in Umm al-Sakhr in Iraq when Tehran expelled Sunni residents and replaced them with another component,” he added.
He also emphasized that “In my opinion, neither the Assad regime nor the Iraqi government can change this policy, especially since Western countries appear to agree to these Iranian interventions, even if they can limit their scope."
In conjunction with these movements, Iranian forces and militias supported by them transferred large quantities of weapons and ammunition to fortified sites within cellars in Tamr's old market area, near the city's military airport.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, "operations of storing weapons within fortified underground sites are taking place not only in the city of Tal Palmyra, but also in other Syrian areas located west of the Euphrates River.”
ARMS ARE BEING TRANSFERRED TO GAIN MORE CONTROL AND TO AVOID ISRAELI TARGETING
As the arms shipments reached the countryside of Southern Raqqa, Majalla obtained information from private sources stating that these militias are transferring large quantities of their weapons from central Syria to the north of the country to exploit any Turkish attack that Ankara may launch against the Syrian Democratic Forces, known for short as the SDF, as the arms shipments arrived in conjunction with Tehran's announcement this week that it would not oppose any new Turkish attack that might target the SDF.
According to Abdul Rahman, “Sending weapons is a natural matter, given that the Iranian regime wants to protect the Assad regime, and the latter requires these militias, particularly in light of the Russian-Ukrainian war and the withdrawal of some Russian forces from Syrian territory." As a result, Tehran saw a need to fill that vacuum, in which it saw an opportunity to occupy more Syrian areas previously under Moscow's control and expand its influence, which necessitates more weapons.”
“On the other hand, Israel has threatened, via Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, that it will target the head of the octopus in Tehran rather than its arms in the region, and as a result, the Iranian regime is attempting to strengthen its arms in the region and thus sends weapons to it,” he continued.
Despite Iran's call for Turkey to halt the military operation dubbed "Spring of Peace" by Ankara in the fourth quarter of 2019, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian expressed last Monday during a press conference in Ankara with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, his country's "understanding" of the necessity of Turkish forces carrying out an operation against Kurdish fighters in the Syrian Democratic Forces coalition, which includes, along with the Kurds, Arab, Syriac-Assyrian and Armenian armed groups.
These militias also transported weapons and ammunition, in addition to fighters, to areas in the countryside of Deir ez-Zor near the Syrian Democratic Forces, implying that any Turkish attack could coincide with further Iranian expansion.
* 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