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Iran’s new brigade infiltrates tribes in east Syria

Iran is working on controlling and infiltrating the Syrian community by supporting local leaders affiliated with it, forming tribal councils and appointing new sheikhs from small clans and families to spread Shiism in its areas of control in east Syria.
Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces gather in the village of Susah in the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor, near the Syrian border with Iraq, Sept. 13, 2018.

Since the beginning of 2021, Iran has begun working on forming the Hashemiyoon military brigade in Syria, allowing only Shiites to join it. The newly formed faction, which began operating in mid-August, has joined the other pro-Iranian factions in Syria, including Zainabiyoun Brigades, Fatemiyoun Brigade and al-Husseinoun Brigade.

The Hashemiyoon Brigade has engaged in military operations in Syria, with offices and sites spreading through the cities of al-Bukamal, al-Mayadin, Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa in eastern Syria. New offices were also opened in Aleppo and the countryside of Damascus.

The brigade is directly affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and is led by Youssef al-Hamdan, known as Abu Issa al-Mashhadani, and Musa al-Mahdmoud — both of whom are close to Tehran.

In August, the brigade was ordered to convince tribal sheikhs, mukhtars, clerics and other influential dignitaries and figures in east Syria to join the so-called Euphrates Valley Tribes and Clans Council affiliated with Iran, with the aim of spreading Shiism in the area.

Those who agree to join the council would be granted a document certifying that they are from the descendants of the Hashemites (descendants of the Prophet Muhammad) and the Husseini House (in reference to Hussein Ibn Ali, the son of Ali, cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, and Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad). They would also receive political, military and media support, and funds to open new headquarters for the recruitment and training of middle and high school students, in addition to organizing school trips to Iranian universities in the city of Qom.

A sheikh of the Bakara tribe in Deir ez-Zor told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “All the members of the Hashemiyoon Brigade are tribesmen from the area, especially from Deir ez-Zor. The brigade is estimated to have around 200 members so far.”

The brigade has confiscated many houses in al-Bukamal and other towns and villages in the Euphrates area, turning them into sites for new recruits, according to the sheikh.

Al-Rahba Citadel in the city of al-Mayadin was also turned into a weapons depot to protect arms from airstrikes, he said, noting that the citadel also serves as a military site for the Iranian leaders of the brigade.

The Hashemiyoon Brigade’s main mission is to recruit tribesmen and forcibly convert the population into Shiism, by bribing influential tribal leaders, the source said. 

“Tehran is well aware of the tribes’ influence in this part of Syria, as they are the original inhabitants with the largest population density — something that could help spread Shiism across the Syrian communities. Also, Iran [resorted to tribes] since it could no longer cover all battlefronts given the ongoing losses and the desertion of dozens of fighters,” he noted.

He said, “Meetings are ongoing between tribal dignitaries in the area and Iranian leaders to recruit tribesmen into the ranks of the new brigade and cover battlefronts against Islamic State cells, Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF] and the armed opposition factions.”

The source added, “But these efforts to recruit tribesmen will not succeed as we [the Bakara tribe] will wait for the right opportunity to eliminate tribal leaders who are loyal to Iran and who lost influence among tribesmen. Iran has been seeking to use these chiefs to serve its own interests, after having sidelined the opponent tribal leaders."

He continued, “Iran is making sure that the newly formed brigade is made up of tribesmen, since tribes are spread in Iraq and Syria, which would help Tehran control and spread its influence faster in the [Euphrates] area.”

Mudar Hammad al-Assaad, spokesman for the Syrian Tribes and Clans Council, told Al-Monitor, “Iran has been using the Arab tribes to recruit their youths to fight alongside Iranian forces and to gain their allegiance by offering them military and economic support among other benefits. Iran has also appointed many as sheikhs in a bid to undercut the role of tribes, many of whom have joined the political opposition.”

He said, “Tehran is trying to spread the message that the tribes’ fighters fighting with the armed opposition forces do not represent the clans. Many tribes support the Syrian regime and Iran, which deepens the gap between the members of the same clan."

Assaad noted, “Amid the deteriorating economic and security situation, the area’s youth seek to join Iranian-affiliated militias in a bid to escape arrests from the Syrian regime and get some money. The Hashemiyoon Brigade’s leaders also offer some incentives — such as the authority to conduct legal matters and transactions in government departments — to lure in the youth, which is Iran’s tactic in recruiting people in the area.”

He added, “Over the past few weeks, a group of tribal sheikhs have intensified their calls for recruitment. Iran is seeking to have tribesmen join its ranks because hiring foreign fighters is much more expensive."

According to Al-Khabour network covering news in the eastern Euphrates, Iran has failed to control the east of the Euphrates militarily and is now working on controlling it through the support of local leaders loyal to Tehran, and the formation of tribal councils as well as the appointment of new sheikhs from smaller tribes and families belonging to Ahl al-Bayt (referring to the extended family of the Prophet Muhammad), in a bid to spread Shiism in the area.

Private sources cited by Al-Khabour said that Iran announced its support for the Bani Saba clan to hold a conference Oct. 13 in the SDF-controlled Qamishli area in order to split from the Tay tribe, one of the largest tribes in Syria that has no affiliation to any party. 

The same sources reported that Iran had granted funds for the Bani Saba dignitaries to be distributed to the families of the Tay tribe in Qamishli, in a bid to gain their loyalty and allegiance. 

Anas Shawakh, researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies, told Al-Monitor, “The Hashemiyoon Brigade aims to sow discord within Arab tribes and to associate them with Iran, Ahl al-Bayt and the Hashemites. The brigade managed to create cracks in the Tay tribe, after the Bani Saba clan announced it was splitting from it to become independent.”

He said, “These defected tribes and clans will need to join military factions, which is why the brigade was formed, to embrace them all. With this move, Russia would no longer be able to expel Iran from the area, because Tehran has managed to deeply infiltrate within the area’s social fabric, achieving its desired goal."

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