Iran is enlisting militiamen in part of regime-held eastern Syria, looking to cement its influence in an area with a key border crossing for moving weapons to allied groups, according to a report Friday.
The Washington Post said Iran is outcompeting Syria in signing up fighters in Deir-ez-Zor province, offering better salaries and conditions to former rebels and army deserters than the Syrian military.
Citing local experts, the report said Iran — a leading backer of the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war — has also been building schools and distributing food, and has even tried to convert some mosques in the predominately Sunni-area to Shiite Islam, the Islamic Republic’s official religion.
“They have more influence than the army,” a former militia member identified as Abu Khadija was quoted as saying.
Abu Khadija said he joined a militia for the pay and benefits rather than on religious or ideological grounds, adding that many young Syrians saw the Iranian-backed armed groups as “the only solution to escape the army.”
“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.”
The report noted the importance to Iran of al-Bukamal, a city in the province along the border with Iraq. Controlling the city is critical to Iranian efforts to establish a land corridor from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, into Lebanon, and out to the Mediterranean Sea, which could allow Tehran to more easily transport weapons, fighters, and materiel throughout the Middle East.
“The Iranians want to create a popular base loyal to them in case they have to leave someday,” Syria-based analyst Ammar al-Hamad told the newspaper.
This article was edited by The Syrian Observer. The Syrian Observer has not verified the content of this story. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.