Fearing further retaliatory air strikes after the United States responded with force to a deadly March 23 drone attack, Iran-aligned militias in Syria's Deir Ezzor are hiding among civilians to protect themselves, local activists said.
Given their long history of disregard for the lives and well-being of the local population, Deir Ezzor media activist Jamil al-Abed told Al-Mashareq, it is not surprising that militiamen are concealing themselves among civilians.
In recent years, he said, militias linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have opened headquarters in residential neighbourhoods, moving in ammunition depots to keep them from being targeted by coalition strikes.
More recently, local residents told Al-Mashareq, these militias have camouflaged their headquarters, arsenals and missile factories to look like food storage warehouses distributing aid following February's devastating earthquake.
But intensive deployment of militiamen in residential, densely populated neighbourhoods, where they have paid impoverished and desperate homeowners large sums of money to leave their houses, is a new move, he said.
Iran-aligned militias have taken these pre-emptive actions "because they know that coalition warplanes would not target these neighbourhoods, in order to safeguard the lives of civilians", he explained.
"What these militias are doing, namely the use of civilians as human shields, is similar to what the 'Islamic State of Iraq and Syria' (ISIS) did in many areas, including Deir Ezzor," al-Abed noted.
Disregard for civilian lives
IRGC-affiliated militias have been hiding in residential areas "not only to safeguard the lives of fighters but also to protect the equipment used in the manufacture of missiles and explosive-laden drones", activist Ayham al-Ali said.
This has sparked panic and anger among the civilian population over the IRGC's disregard for its lives, he told Al-Mashareq.
There has been a mass exodus from many residential neighbourhoods in the cities of Deir Ezzor, al-Mayadeen and Albu Kamal, on the Iraqi border.
The militias' recent actions follow a familiar pattern, al-Ali said, as in the past, they would confiscate houses and property and turn them into military barracks and weapon depots without raising their flags atop them.
The militias were furious after recent strikes on their facilities, he said, and rounded up civilians from Deir Ezzor city and Syrian regime military personnel whom they suspected of having leaked information about the targeted sites.
They also vacated some sites and moved to other houses they had acquired more recently, tightened security, increased the working hours of their fighters and raised their salaries, he said.
Reporting suspicious activity
"It is natural for civilians to report any suspicious location in residential neighbourhoods, since the matter affects their lives and the safety of their children," al-Ali said.
Local residents also report suspicious activity "out of anger at the IRGC, which camouflaged its military headquarters, warehouses and missile factories as food warehouses", he said.
Many trucks were seen coming from Iraq and unloading their cargo, especially following the earthquake, he said, under the pretense that they were transporting relief for the afflicted.
Syrian state media have been complicit in the cover-up, Syrian journalist Mohammed al-Abdullah told Al-Mashareq.
State media have gone to great lengths "to cover up the reality of the presence of Iranian militia elements and headquarters in civilian areas", he said.