Iran is enlisting militiamen in part of 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 Ezzor 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.
In 2020, a private Israeli satellite imagery analysis firm released photos it said showed that Iran was constructing a new underground weapons storage facility at the Imam Ali base in the al-Bukamal region of Syria, which is believed to be run by Iranian forces.
The border area has been the site of several airstrikes attributed to Israel, which has vowed to prevent Iran from establishing a military presence in Syria.
Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes inside Syria over the course of the country’s civil war, targeting what it says are suspected arms shipments believed to be bound for Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group, which is fighting alongside Syrian government force.
Agencies contributed to this report.