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Russia, Iran compete for influence in Syria via private security companies

Private security companies in Syria with ties to Russian and Iranian forces are busily recruiting young men with attractive salaries.
A man watches as Russian troops escort a convoy of Syrian civilians leaving the town of Tal Tamr in the northeastern Hasakeh province, to return to their homes in the northern town of Ain Issa in the countryside of the Raqqa region, via the strategic M4 highway, on January 10, 2021. - The town of Tal Tamr is on the front line between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian factions supported by Turkey. 
Civilians stranded on both sides of the line because of heavy fighting, have been able to retur

Russia and Iran are taking every opportunity to increase their influence in Syria. They recently urged private security companies to open offices across Syria, offering young men large amounts of money to work for them amid deteriorating economic conditions and a lack of job opportunities in the Syrian regime-controlled areas.

The Syrian government had stopped issuing licenses to private security companies when the civil war broke out in 2011, but resumed the authorizations in 2013.

There are over 70 private security companies registered in Syria. These companies provide protection to wealthy individuals and supporters of the Syria regime. They also offer protective services facilities and factories, accompanying convoys and large transfers of cash.

Since 2013 they have expanded the scope of their activities and formed relationships with Russian or Iranian groups. They accompanied high-ranking military leaders or guarded premises for the Russian forces, including oil facilities in Qamishli, Hasakah and Deir ez-Zor. Others protected the Iranian convoys arriving in Syria for religious purposes and even fought alongside Iranian and Russian forces.

The main companies working for the Russian forces include Al-Maham, which is owned by the Qatirji Company which imports oil from the areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces. 

Another is the Damascus-based Sanad Guard and Security Services. The company, which has ties to the Russian forces, provides guarding services to oil facilities directly controlled by Russia, like al-Tim and al-Ward and al-Shoula oil fields in Deir ez-Zor. 

Al-Sayad Company works with Russian forces to pursue Islamic State cells in the Syrian desert.

Members of the Russian Wagner Group positioned at the Deir ez-Zor military airport oversee training for private security companies affiliated with Russia.

An employee at the Sanad Guard and Security Services told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “[Private security] offices in Homs proposed that we work for the Russian forces in guarding oil facilities in Hasakah and Qamishli in exchange for $300 per month. The recruit would receive a prepayment of six months before starting, including a 10-day leave every two months. Upon renewal of the contract, the pay is raised to $400 per month. Another option is for the recruit to work in Deir ez-Zor or Idlib in exchange for a monthly salary of $200, with a 10-day leave each month.”

He added, “The lack of job opportunities and deteriorating living situation in the areas under the control of the Syrian regime forces have pushed many youths to work with the Russian forces, who offer a high monthly salary. They also protect the recruit from conscription by the regime’s security branches and grant him more opportunities than those offered by the Syrian army and intelligence.”

Another, Al-Qalaa Company, works with Iranian forces is active in al-Bukamal city under the Iranian forces’ control in Deir ez-Zor governorate and accompanies the convoys of Iranian and Iraqi pilgrims entering Syria. Former officers in the Syrian army and intelligence manage the company under the supervision of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Al-Fajr Company protects oil convoys moving between Iraq and the oil refineries in Homs and Baniass from IS attacks in the Syrian desert.

Political writer and analyst Hassan al-Naifi told Al-Monitor, “The conflict of interest between Russia and Iran is no longer concealed as it had been in the past. The [division] of the Syrian territory has prompted each international party to seek the necessary tools to protect its own interests. Iranians managed, before the Russians, to recruit a large number of Syrian youths by appealing to religious affiliations and by offering money. Thus, [Iranians] now have local militias in south Syria as well as in al-Bukamal and al-Mayadin [in east Syria], namely the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade and the Fatemiyoun Brigade.”

He added, “Russians took similar steps, just like Iranians, in Deir ez-Zor and areas controlled by the regime in the east of Syria. They [recruited youth] by offering money and authority. [Russia and Iran] may be seeking to form local militias that would implement their own agendas and plans and use them as pawns in their proxy wars.”

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