The Fatemiyoun Division, a militia led by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), is exploiting the poverty Syrians residing in eastern rural Aleppo province face to recruit them, activists and experts said.
The number of Syrians in the militia's ranks has increased significantly in the recent period, they told Al-Mashareq, hand in hand with the rising economic hardship local residents face.
"Economic conditions are dire in eastern rural Aleppo," said Saleh al-Afisi, a former Free Syrian Army officer who works in agriculture in rural Aleppo.
The current situation is "one of the worst periods in the region's history in all respects", he said.
The Iran-aligned militias are trying to exert control over the entire region, he said, picking out areas that they want to be exclusive to them, seizing control of them, and pursuing all those who oppose them "in a repressive manner".
Even the region's leading figures -- local elders and dignitaries -- are "unable to do anything about this situation", he said.
Farmers abandon their land
Meanwhile, al-Afisi said, "economic conditions are constantly deteriorating because of the lack of job opportunities and total absence of Syrian state institutions, as if this is deliberate, with the intent to force the youth to join the Iranian militias".
The dire need for employment is the main motive most job seekers have for dealing with these militias, he said, despite the meagreness of the salaries offered.
"Agriculture has become utterly futile because of the high cost of preparatory work," he explained, such as ploughing, planting and fertilising the land. "Only a handful of people in the area continue to remain engaged in this profession."
Al-Afisi said the heavy presence of Iran-aligned militias, their constant movement, and the possibility that their posts would become the target of air strikes or shelling at any moment frighten farmers.
As a result, many have abandoned their agricultural lands for fear for their lives.
'Like a military zone'
These days, eastern Aleppo province is like a "military zone under the control of IRGC militias, especially Lebanese Hizbullah and the Fatemiyoun Division", Aleppo media activist Faisal al-Ahmad told Al-Mashareq.
Military fortifications are clearly visible along the west bank of the Euphrates, he said, specifically in the area facing the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the opposite bank.
The Fatemiyoun Division is notably active in recruiting the youth in the area, "especially residents of the towns of Maskana, al-Safira, Deir Hafer and al-Khafsa", al-Ahmad said.
This is done through Syrian mediators who receive commissions for each person they recruit to work with these militias, he said.
Although the Syrian recruits are organisationally affiliated with the Fatemiyoun Division, he said, initial training is conducted by Lebanese Hizbullah, followed by another period of training under the Fatemiyoun Division.
"The only motive for young Syrians to volunteer in the ranks of this militia is money, due to the widespread poverty in the region," al-Ahmad said.
But some also join the militia to escape the harassment that they are subjected to by the militia elements themselves, he added.
Syrian recruits are often assigned to guard duty "as if the purpose of their recruitment is to draw the danger away from the Afghan elements and put the Syrians at the forefront, where their lives would be in danger", al-Ahmad said.
Meanwhile, he added, the Afghan militiamen remain hidden and constantly move between positions out of fear of air strikes, which target their posts on a regular basis.
Al-Ahmad noted that militias deployed in eastern rural Aleppo "bring in military reinforcements on a regular basis, including vehicles, weapons, ammunition and missiles, as if they are preparing for some kind of military action".
These reinforcements arrive "despite the cautious calm that prevails in the entire region", he said.
Distrust of local militias
"The element of distrust of local militias drove IRGC commanders to bring in the Afghan elements who make up the Fatemiyoun Division," Iranian affairs researcher Sheyar Turko told Al-Mashareq.
Most members of the Fatemiyoun Division were brought up in special camps that are under the authority and supervision of the IRGC, where they imbibed the principle of Wilayat al-Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist), he said.
This calls for allegiance to Wali al-Faqih (the Guardian Jurist) -- Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.
Steeped in this ideology since childhood, members of the Fatemiyoun Division "became much like programmed machines that follow orders to the letter", and the same is true for the members of Lebanese Hizbullah, he said.
This has fostered close co-operation between the two groups.
The Fatemiyoun Division has suffered significant losses, Turko said, noting that the current move to recruit Syrians stems "from the severe numerical shortfall the militia is facing as a result of air strikes on its positions".
Hizbullah is currently unable to recruit Lebanese fighters due to a lack of funds, he said, "especially while the Syrian fighter is willing to accept any monthly payment because of the widespread poverty in the region".