Iran controls Syria’s Deir ez-Zor by persuasion, intimidation

DEIR EZ-ZOR, Syria (North Press) – Iran entered the western part of Deir ez-Zor in 2017 under the pretense of backing the Syrian government forces in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), but when the fighting was over, Iran’s strategy of expansion began.

Iran, through its militias, controls the region from the city of Deir ez-Zor to the town of Abu Kamal, on the Syrian border with Iraq, in addition to seven strategic towns in the eastern countryside of Deir ez-Zor. Despite the presence of the government forces in these regions, Iran ignores it and imposes its control and power entirely on the region.

North Press has obtained information on the Iranian infiltration in Deir ez-Zor from military and civilian sources. Iran managed to recruit children, attract tribes, and build hussainiyas (Shiite places of worship) to implement, by persuasion and intimidation, its plans in the region, which aim at establishing an Iranian region that expands to Lebanon.

Iran controls regions of Deir ez-Zor through related militias, such as Liwa Zainebiyoun, Liwa Abu al-Fadhal al-Abbas, Liwa Hashemiyoun, Haydariyoun, Liwa al-Quds, the Iraqi Hezbollah, and the Popular Mobilization Forces. The last one controls the land smuggling routes between the Iraqi and Syrian Desert and provides the smuggling revenues as financial support to militants from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Bullet points

Iran gradually began to open cultural centers in an attempt to promote the Shiite faith in the Sunni region. However, it faced a major obstacle, as the population rejected the idea of the Shiite doctrine. Nevertheless, the deteriorating financial conditions of some individuals have driven them to join these centers.

Given the economic and psychological devastation wrought by the war in Syria, Iran has sought to gain popular support by winning over tribal leaders and decision-makers. Iran has provided them with various forms of assistance, including financial and logistical support, and has placed them in charge of resolving outstanding issues. In some cases, Iran has solved these issues itself but has given credit to the tribal leaders to strengthen their position and gain the trust of the local population and thus achieve its political interests.

There are 30 recruitment centers for Iranian-backed militias in the regions west of the Euphrates River that guarantee Iran’s presence in Deir ez-Zor. Iran seeks to recruit both adults and children in the militias and to promote Shiite culture in various ways. Iran’s ultimate goal is to expand its presence in eastern Syria and realize its ambition of connecting Iran and Lebanon.

Influencing tribes

The tribal loyalty contributed to strengthening the Iranian influence in Deir ez-Zor, in regions west of the Euphrates, who see that their interest lies with Iran rather than the government forces, since the latter was unable to win over the tribes.

The recruitment began with families from the village of Hatlah, as well as with the support of Nawaf al-Bashir, the leader of the al-Baggara tribe. With al-Bashir’s help, Iran formed the Baqir Brigade and Tribe Lions, with the majority of the members coming from al-Baggara. These two militias are now managed, along with other tribal and regional militias from the area, by Iran’s IRGC.

These militias are often led by Iranian leaders and local sub-leaders. The local militias tend to focus on smuggling, escorting Iranian trucks and protecting Iranian headquarters.

The majority of the leaders and sheikhs of the tribes in areas controlled by Iran and government forces in Deir ez-Zor have submitted to Iran’s command and have formed auxiliary brigades of the IRGC.

Iranian-backed militias do not grant broad powers to local militants within their ranks. Instead, they use these militias as human shields and to carry out specific tasks, such as conducting combing operations in the Syrian Desert, fighting against ISIS, and protecting oil fields and military bases, such as the Imam Ali base, which locals are not allowed to enter.

The Imam Ali base in Abu Kamal is the largest Iranian military base in Deir ez-Zor, which supports the Jihad al-Bina foundation and the Imam Hussein organization. From this base, Iran conducts its expansionist military operations in the region. The base is home to senior Iranian officers, who seek to annex Deir ez-Zor to Iraq to fulfill the ‘Shiite Crescent’ project.

Smooth infiltration

The Iranian presence in Deir ez-Zor is not solely focused on protecting and supporting the Syrian government. Rather, one of Iran’s primary strategies in the region has been to change its demographics and promote the Shiite doctrine among the local population.

Iran has been able to exert influence over certain tribes in Deir ez-Zor by leveraging the importance of lineage within these communities. Specifically, Iran has backed tribes with a historical connection to the Ahl al-Bayt, or the descendants of Prophet Muhammad, such as the al-Baggara, Mashahda, and al-Marasima tribes, and all of them backed Iran and its militias.

They lure women and recruit them to their armed forces. They also support them through cultural centers, which offer nursing and sewing courses, in addition to employing them in the centers themselves.

According to North Press sources, women close to local leaders recruited girls under the age of 16 to join the IRGC, and formed a women’s battalion under the name of the ‘al-Zahra Battalion’. 

Iran also targeted children in Deir ez-Zor for conversion and sent some of them to Shia centers in Najaf and Karbala, in Iraq, enticing them with prize money and trips to Shiite shrines.

It also recruited over 200 children in areas under its control under the supervision of local leaders in the Baqer Brigade. Media reports confirmed the death of about 20 children from the ranks of Iranian-backed militias.

They recruit children of both sexes through scouts organizations, such as al-Mahdi and al-Batoul, taking advantage of the people’s dire economic conditions in Deir ez-Zor by presenting financial temptations and monthly aid, as well as other benefits.

Men and interests

In addition to the above, Iran is expanding economic investments by introducing its own organizations and liberation movements to operate in the region, to present itself as the “affectionate mother”, who cares to enhance the people’s conditions in Deir ez-Zor.

These attracted several Deir ez-Zor businessmen and made large amounts of money from smuggling narcotics and other artifacts.

Iran brought in large quantities of drugs from Iraq and Lebanon, using its military vehicles to avoid inspection. Usually, drugs are transported to IRGC centers, then distributed to dealers in the region, and later to child vendors and pharmacies that have come to sell them publicly without any accountability.

Firas al-Jaham, the leader of the National Defense Forces, is considered one of the biggest drug dealers in the region. He is the right arm of IRGC, who supply him with large quantities of drugs at low prices to be distributed to dealers and sold in the region.

Religious leaders, especially those who turned Shiite, are the most important puppets of Iran in the region. They contributed to turning large numbers of Deir ez-Zor’s residents into Shiites. Iran aims to obliterate the region’s Sunni identity and strengthen its foundation in the region, on which it depends to expand. Some of the religious leaders that assist Iran are Samer Sofan, Hussein al-Raja, Yassin al-Maayouf and Mullah Saleh al-Obaid, Mufti of Abu Kamal.

These individuals helped in opening several hussainiyas. Iran expanded its power and Shiite ideology through organizations, cultural centers and other institutions, but the main role was that of the Iranian organization of Jihad al-Bina, a Syrian branch of which was established in 2018.

In addition to establishing charitable organizations and institutions that attract residents through financial temptations. Iran’s main objective is to control the western part of Deir ez-Zor and the Syrian Desert to make its Shia project successful in the region by connecting Syria and Iraq to Iran.


Iran began to penetrate into the region with humanitarian aid, on the pretext of breaking the embargo in Deir ez-Zor, then by opening free medical centers for the people, then by setting up pools, parks and other facilities.

In addition, it established cultural centers that are directly affiliated with the Iranian Cultural Centre in Damascus, including the one in Deir ez-Zor, which manages the al-Nour al-Sati institute and the Scouts of Mahdi, in Hatlah, al-Mayadin, Abu Kamal, and in Mahkan.

They established five hussainiyas in the city of Hatlah, which is the center of gravity for Iran. They built one in the town of al-Sukariya, in the countryside of Abu Kamal, known as the Ahl al-Bayt hussainiya, and the Qasem Suleimani hussainiya in al-Mayadin.

As for Shiite shrines in Deir ez-Zor, the most important is the Ain Ali shrine in al-Quriya desert and the Qubat Ali shrine in the countryside of Abu Kamal, in addition to several “fake” tombs and mausoleums.       

Enticement is not the only way Iran has implemented its agendas. It has used intimidation as a way of implementing its project as there are a number of small prisons within Deir ez-Zor, but the prisoners are often its militants.

There are three secret prisons under the cover of the government’s flags, as the most horrific of these prisons in Syria is the “Hangar” prison inside Deir ez-Zor military airport, where civilians are subjected to brutality that sometimes leads to death.

In addition to another prison for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in al-Hamdan agricultural airport in Abu Kamal, and another prison in al-Mayadeen area near the shrine of Ain Ali.

The Iranian factions exploit the Syrian government in its practices and cover up their presence. They also exploit the economic conditions of the population in government-held areas to recruit them instead of granting them privileges that high-ranking officers in the government’s forces lack.

Reporting by Ahmad Othman