A systematic extortion campaign is underway in regime-controlled areas of Deir Ezzor province where Syrian forces and loyal militias have been arresting residents and only releasing them in exchange for a fee, local activists say.
The campaign targets in particular civilians who have recently returned to north-east Syria, especially to the city of Albu Kamal on the border with Iraq.
This has made living in the region almost impossible, Deir Ezzor activist Jamil al-Abed told Diyaruna.
"Residents who had recently returned to Albu Kamal after obtaining assurances that they would not be harassed by the regime's security services are now being subjected to arrests and extortion threats," he said.
These violations begin as soon as they return to the area, he said, noting that many men who returned with their families were arrested by the military security branch, which is one of the regime's security institutions but follows the orders of Russian forces.
Those arrested were informed that they must pay up to 500,000 Syrian pounds ($1,000) to be released, said al-Abed. Many, unable to pay the fee, were forced to either borrow money or sell their livestock.
For those who have no way of obtaining the funds, he said, they may remain in detention for a long time and possibly be transferred to one of the regime's detention centres in Damascus on fabricated charges.
These usually include accusations of dealing with international coalition forces or being members of a terrorist group, he added.
Al-Abed said the regime's 4th Division has also been imposing "exorbitant fees" on furniture the returnees bring with them, which in most cases exceed the price of the furniture itself.
Iranian affairs specialist Sheyar Turko told Diyaruna that activists and civilians in the city of Albu Kamal accuse elements of the IRGC-affiliated 47th Regiment as being the top culprits behind the extortion attempts.
Recent reports indicate that the salaries of the regiment's elements were cut by 50% or more due to the dire financial conditions Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is facing and its inability to continue to pay its fighters' salaries at the same level, he said.
Seizing residents' homes
Albu Kamal media activist Ayham al-Ali told Diyaruna some families returned to the city because they were concerned that regime forces or IRGC-affiliated militias might seize their property.
In recent months, these forces have been engaged in an effort to misappropriate vacant homes and the private property of residents in areas under their control, al-Ali said.
To achieve this, they tamper with deeds of ownership and forge deeds of sale, he said. These properties mostly end up going to IRGC officers who turn them into housing for their elements and their families or into military posts.
IRGC-affiliated militiamen are also extorting returning residents by threatening them with arrest if they do not send their children to religious and scout camps that they have set up in the area, said al-Ali.
These camps are supervised by IRGC officers and aim to groom the next generation of Iranian regime loyalists, he said.
"Many have been refraining from joining the militias despite financial enticements, hence the need for threats and extortions," al-Ali said.