As is known, the Iranian regime widely uses people from the Shiite communities of the neighboring countries in the Syrian war; mainly Iraq, Afghanistan, and Shiites from Pakistan to a lesser degree. This article is about Afghan and Pakistani fighters, who give their lives for “Greater Iran.”
Afghans fighting in Syria are probably one of the militant units controlled by Tehran. They are often used to attack opponents’ positions, and they have the highest rate of losses. Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a few million of Afghans have lived in Iran. Most of them do not have any documents, and they remain in the country illegally.
That makes it difficult for them to integrate into the Iranian society and puts them in a vulnerable position. It is needless to say that the majority of Afghans live in extreme poverty in Iran. The Iranian regime could always exploit vulnerable groups.
The formation of Liwa Fatemiyoun with a high concentration of Afghan fighters was completed in 2014. However, the Afghans had been fighting in Syria and suffering many losses long before that date.
Though the Iranian propaganda tries to cover up the fact that Liwa Fatemiyoun is controlled entirely by IRGC and presents the Afghan fighters (as well as others) as the defenders of “Holy places”, operating at their discretion, numerous testimonials easily expose this misinformation. It is a fact that Afghans are mainly (not always) recruited from among the Afghans who live in Iran illegally and don’t want to return to Afghanistan.
Iranian authorities offer the fighters a monthly salary and legal residency in Iran to them and their families, even though these people are refugees and they have been living in this country for decades. The Iranian authorities should had given residence to them many years ago. Not always this process of involving the Afghans in military actions is voluntary.
It is a sad fact that Iranians use 12- to16-year-old Afghan teenagers as cannon fodder in Syria. Human Rights Watch recorded the facts of using child soldiers. Such actions of the Iranian regime may be regarded as crimes against humanity.
According to the reports of Human Rights Watch based on testimonies of Afghans who could run away to Europe, the Iranian authorities use various methods to involve the Afghans in military service in Syria. Often, the Iranian police raid the Afghans in Iranian cities.
Arrested Afghans are offered either deportation or military service in Syria. In case of refusal, deportation also threatens the family of an arrested Afghan. Very often, those who agreed to fight in Syria get paid only a part of the pledged amount.
The Afghans complete a military crash course (including skill with a gun, RPGs, digging of trenches and use of communication media) mainly in Varamin, 60 kilometers south of Tehran.
After their arrival in Syria, the Afghans come under the command of the Iranian officers, who send them into combat, threatening them with mass shootings. According to Afghans, they met 12-year-old Afghan boys fighting for the Shiite groups controlled by Iran.
We also have information that Iranians try to recruit the Afghans, caught crossing the borders illegally. Human Rights Watch provides the evidence of a 14-year old Afghan boy.
Iranian commanders have no mercy for Afghans and throw them to hotspots (often without backup), so the Afghans have one of the highest rates in terms of loss of lives. In January 2018, Radio Farda reported about 2,000 dead Afghans, quoting the Commander of “Fatemiyoon Division.” Of course, this number might not reflect the real figure; moreover, the number of deaths has changed since that time. However, even taking this figure, we can understand that the rate of irreparable losses is too highAli Hajizade
Iranian border guards detained him together with some 150 other Afghans after they tried to cross from Iran into Turkey. “They took us to a police station near the border, and we had to walk barefoot. They beat us with sticks like animals,” he said.
“Then they put us on a truck and ordered us to keep our heads down; if we raised our heads, they would beat us again.”
At the police station, the officers offered the men and the boys in the group the choice between going to fight in Syria or deportation to Afghanistan: “They said to us, ‘if anyone wants to go fight in Syria, we will take care of you; otherwise, we will deport you.” None of the men in the group agreed, and they deported all of them to Afghanistan.
In 2016, in the west of Afghanistan, not far from Gerat, Qurban Ghalambor, the representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Afghanistan was arrested. The Afghan authorities suspect him of recruiting Persian-speaking Hazaras, who live in Afghanistan, to involve them in the war in Syria.
Preying on men
As we can see, the Iranian authorities prey on Afghan men and boys, to send them to the Syrian war. According to sources, the number of Afghan fighters in Syria can reach 20,000. There is also a small community of Afghan refugees in Syria, the members of which also participate in the war on the side of Assad’s forces.
Iranian commanders have no mercy for Afghans and throw them to hotspots (often without backup), so the Afghans have one of the highest rates in terms of loss of lives. In January 2018, Radio Farda reported about 2,000 dead Afghans, quoting the Commander of “Fatemiyoon Division.”
Of course, this number might not reflect the real figure; moreover, the number of deaths has changed since that time. However, even taking this figure, we can understand that the rate of irreparable losses is too high.
Besides the Afghans, the IRGC also has armed units of Pakistani Shiites in Syria. The Iranian propaganda tries to present Pakistani “Liwa Zainebiyoun” as volunteers, defenders of Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque. However, there are shreds of evidence of using Pakistani fighters in offensive operations in various sites of the battlefield.
Information about Pakistanis killed in Syria first appeared in November 2014, but there also could be other victims before. There are also pieces of evidence pointing at the involvement of Pakistanis in military actions in 2013.
Iranian intelligence services strengthened their ties with Shiite groups in Pakistan right after the start of the US military campaign in Afghanistan in 2001.
Certain Pakistanis living in Iran, Pakistanis from Shiite districts of Pakistan and a small number of Shiite Pakistanis deported from the UAE also fight among the Pakistani brigade. Some Shiites in Pakistan talk about discrimination against them, so they treat the war in Syria as a crucial battle.
Although the commanders of “Liwa Zainebiyoun” say that they are the defenders of Shiite Holy places in Syria and are not subject to the IRGC, in fact, the Pakistani brigade, as well as the Afghans, are controlled by the IRGC and follow their orders.
Shiites in Pakistan
Tens of millions of Shiites live in Pakistan, and there has been tension between Shiites and Sunnis since the late 1980s. In June 2017, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al-Alami, Sunni Islamist group affiliated with the ISIS, carried out a terrorist attack in Pakistani Parachinar, were Shiites are concentrated. This terrorist attack was revenge for the local Shiites going to fight for Iran’s side.
The participation of Pakistanis in the Syrian conflict, in part, causes confrontation in Pakistan. It shows that the involvement of Pakistanis as mercenaries in Syria also facilitates sectarian confrontations and violence within Pakistan.
Fearing Pakistani intelligence services, Iranians are cautious about recruiting Pakistanis. They widely use websites and social networks. Iranians try to smuggle their new recruits out discreetly, also using boats. Of course, that does not work every time.
There were dozens of cases when the Pakistani authorities intercepted volunteers heading to Syria. They prefer not to disclose all the details about Pakistani participation in the Syrian war and Iran’s role in it, but using only information available in public domain, we can understand the schemes and the scales of this phenomenon.
Certain organizations, involved in recruiting, work as “charitable societies,” for example, at the end of 2016, Pakistani intelligence services suspended the activities of “Ansarul-Hussain” organization. This Shiite charitable organization was sending Pakistani Shiites to the war in Syria.
It is noteworthy that even though Pakistanis call themselves “volunteers,” in fact, the Iranian authorities pay them salaries for their “voluntary” job in Syria. The exact number of Pakistanis fighting in Syria is unknown, but a figure of 1,000 fighters regularly appears in Pakistani mass media.
The Iranian authorities organized demonstrative funerals in Kum for certain Pakistanis killed in Syria, hinting at their honors and the martyr status.
The Sunni extremists from Pakistan also fight in Syria but against the Assad regime. In other words, Pakistanis fight in Syria on both sides, depending on their religious identity.
Ali Hajizade is a political analyst and founder editor in chief of thegreatmiddleeast.com. He tweets @AHajizade.