An Iran-funded foundation that is run by Lebanon's Hizbullah has been expanding its operations in Syria under the guise of carrying out reconstruction and providing aid, Syrian activists told Diyaruna.
They accused Jihad al-Bina of concealing its main objectives: recruiting youth to serve in Hizbullah's ranks, and closing large real estate deals that provide vital funding for Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
The foundation has been removing rubble and repairing buildings in many Syrian regions, "in addition to distributing food aid and money, particularly in remote areas", Syrian lawyer Bashir al-Bassam told Diyaruna.
Despite the overtly humanitarian nature of the foundation’s activities, "they yield direct benefit for the IRGC" by facilitating its expansion across Syria and "winning many Syrian government public work contracts", he said.
This enables Jihad al-Bina to gain revenue from the Syrian treasury, either directly or via small affiliates that operate through a Syrian front company, he said.
Focus on border town
Through Jihad al-Bina, the IRGC is focusing its efforts on the Deir Ezzor city of Albu-Kamal, just across the border from the Iraqi city of al-Qaim, he noted.
Its strategic location makes the city a key prize for the IRGC, "which seeks to control Albu-Kamal in order to secure a permanent route to Iraq", he said.
IRGC-affiliated militias have had a strong presence in the area since they began expanding there, he said, especially Hizbullah, which deployed heavily in Albu-Kamal and opened a number of Jihad al-Bina foundation offices.
"Eyewitnesses have reported seeing Jihad al-Bina foundation trucks escorted by Hizbullah forces unloading their aid cargo, and others disappearing into neighbourhoods that have become military centres or into towns that have been turned into military barracks for the militia," al-Bassam said.
These trucks are given military escort and protection, "which indicates that they are carrying weapons", he said.
'Tool for expansion'
Jihad al-Bina was established in Beirut by Hizbullah and grew into a front for Iranian expansion in Lebanon under the guise of development, al-Bassam said.
When the war broke out in Syria, "the foundation became a primary tool for expansion in Syria through the aid distributed in remote areas that had been devastated by the economic consequences of the ongoing war", he said.
Once the foundation established a foothold, "it was able to set up centres in other areas such as Damascus and its rural areas, Deir Ezzor and some areas of Aleppo", he said.
Jihad al-Bina "initially opened medical services centres that gave it access to families and enabled it to engage in recruitment", al-Bassam noted.
In Deir Ezzor, the foundation has taken control of dozens of homes and properties by purchasing them from their owners or taking out long leases on buildings and land, local activist Jamil al-Abed told Diyaruna.
These activities have been concentrated in Albu Kamal's al-Jamiyaat neighbourhood, he said, "which was turned into military headquarters and housing for the militants and their families".
Syrians pressured to sell
"Pressure also is being applied on residents by the militias present in the city to force them to sell their property, either through threats, arrests or closure of their shops," al-Abed said.
He noted that most of the transactions are conducted through the Friends Security Office, which processes sale and acquisition transactions after the property owner is referred to it by Jihad al-Bina.
In addition to property acquisition, Jihad al-Bina also recruits youth for Hizbullah for a monthly salary of about $200, he said, noting that Hizbullah has recently begun paying salaries in the Syrian pound.
This would seem to indicate "the IRGC and the militia are short on foreign currency", he said.
Recruitment for Hizbullah is carried out "by applying pressure on youth who are required to report for military or reserves service", he said, in addition to exploiting their difficult financial circumstances and unemployment.