CAIRO -- Tensions are simmering in Deir Ezzor Province, Syria, between Russian-backed Syrian regime forces and the Iranian-backed Fatemiyoun militia over the division of influence and tribute payments, local activists and journalists say.
The Fatemiyoun Division, a group of Afghan militiamen created, supported and directed by the Iranian-backed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), is insisting on getting a share of the revenue generated by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime forces at a security checkpoint at the entrance to al-Mayadeen.
The conflicts are over looted goods, money and nominal positions of power, said Omar Abu Laila, executive director of the local news agency Deir Ezzor 24.
The IRGC views the Syrian regime as "nothing but a chess piece," he said.
Tehran tolerates the Syrian regime's presence in the city strictly to handle some bureaucratic matters and to process residents' paperwork, he said.
The IRGC is allowing this nominal presence in the area because it knows the risk of having only itself and its militias present in the region, especially in relation with "Russia at whose expense the IRGC is expanding its presence in the region," he said.
Tributes, power at stake
The tributes imposed and collected by Syrian regime elements at one of the security checkpoints at the entrance to the city are at the centre of the conflict, said Deir Ezzor activist Jamil al-Abed.
"These tributes prevent the militia from imposing its own tributes on civilians and merchants entering the city," he said.
"The tributes are imposed on people, goods, mass transport vehicles and taxis entering [al-Mayadeen], and this is naturally affecting prices inside the city, which have risen to unprecedented levels," he said.
The conflict has coincided with Ramadan, when the prices of some consumables customarily rise higher than normal levels, he added.
"The Fatemiyoun militia is in complete control of al-Mayadeen, to the point that many of the city's neighbourhoods bear a strong resemblance to the streets of Tehran and the southern suburb of Beirut [in Lebanon] as seen by the flags, partisan and religious banners, and portraits of IRGC militia commanders as well as IRGC commanders," al-Abed said.
"The regime forces have a nominal military presence inside the city and have no real authority," he said. "They are allowed to carry personal and light weapons only, and when 4th Division elements or others enter the city, they have to enter it without their weapons."
The al-Assad regime's role in the city is confined to a few government institutions that are still operational, he said.
"Some of the city's neighbourhoods forbid entry to everyone except Fatemiyoun elements, and this applies to civilians and Syrian regime forces alike," al-Abed said.
Russia, Iran vying for a foothold
In response to Iranian influence in the area, Russian military police have been conducting stepped-up patrols in parts of Deir Ezzor, said Syrian journalist Mohammed al-Abdullah on May 5.
Russian forces have not conducted such patrols since 2017, he said, since that region is largely under the control of the IRGC and affiliated militias.
The recent clashes between IRGC-affiliated militias and Syrian regime-affiliated groups stem from "the political tension that exists between Russia and Iran, with each side trying to control as much ground as possible and keep the other side away", al-Abdullah said.
That power struggle "drove the Russians to establish their hegemony over several Syrian army units and put them in confrontation with IRGC militias", he said.
Financial incentives are another driver, he said, as field commanders are interested in filling their pockets with the tributes collected from civilians and merchants.
Al-Mayadeen has strategic importance "given its proximity to the Syrian Badiya region and its location in the centre of Deir Ezzor Province, near the border with Iraq", al-Abdullah said.
"Hence, controlling it is a matter of life or death for the Iranian project given the feeble presence of [Syrian] regime forces and Russia's obvious weakness on the ground."
Russian forces have been providing strategic training and advanced weaponry to "Hudrat Faisal al-Abbas", a unit of approximately 500 Fatemiyoun fighters in Deir Ezzor, in an attempt to woo the unit's commander, Abdullah Salahi, UAE-based The National reported April 22.
Fatemiyoun fighters have been pictured holding Russian arms and standing alongside Russian special forces in the past. But the offer of direct training and supplies is unprecedented, analysts say.
"For the Russians to be doing this, it's an aggressive signal to send to the Iranians; it's an attack directly at the heart of how Iran is cultivating itself within Syria," Phillip Smyth, a Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The National.
The Kremlin may be exploiting the IRGC at a moment of Iranian weakness, as Tehran struggles to deal with the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic as well as with US sanctions, he said.
"It’s entirely possible that they are not able to maintain the same level of control over their networks and the Russians are taking advantage," Smyth said.