Iran’s Revolutionary Guards train a new group to fight in Syria

IRGC leaders are reportedly currently recruiting Afghan refugees to fight in Syria

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
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Hassan Rowhani’s government and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) do not appear to have difficulties in acquiring new approaches and methods when it comes to supporting Tehran’s staunchest ally, the Assad government.

First of all, Iran propped up Assad with advisory and intelligence assistance. Billions of dollars in credit, and increasing professional and military training assistance followed. Later, Hezbollah was ordered by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his IRGC generals to fight on the side of the Assad.


Following these moves, the IRGC sent approximately 5,000 military officers and trainers to Syria, according to multiple documentations and videos captured by reporters. Iranian leaders have not denied that they are backing up the Assad regime until they eliminate the rebels, whom they have labeled as terrorists.

Recruiting refugees or asylum seekers to fight in other countries is an exploitation of their vulnerable situation

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Intriguingly, IRGC leaders are now making a tactical shift to target another group: refugees and the Shiite community. Several reports have recently indicated that IRGC leaders are currently recruiting Afghan refugees to fight in Syria, helping Assad’s government to regain some of the territories from rebels, beat back the rebel groups, and tip the internal balance of power in favor of the Syrian government. Iranian authorities are offering a stipend of approximately $500 per month and a promise of residency to the Afghan refugees.

A violation of refugee rights?

Setting aside the military aspect of this move by the IRGC, it should be noted that recruiting refugees or asylum seekers to fight in other countries is an exploitation of their vulnerable situation and a violation of their basic refugee rights.

The decrease of international forces in Afghanistan, and the 2014 deadline of the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces, has increasingly ratcheted up Iran’s political leverage over Afghanistan and negatively impacted vulnerable Afghan citizens, refugees, and asylum seekers in Iran.

According to the latest report by Human Rights Watch, Afghan refugees and asylum seekers in Iran encounter arbitrary abuse, are deprived of their basic refugee rights, and denied work on a systematic basis. Accordingly, an estimate of 800,000 Afghans have registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as refugees in Iran— monitored by UNHCR and granted some legal status— and approximately two million live in Iran without refugee status.

Millions of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers are denied refugee status by the Iranian government, which means that they cannot obtain international legal rights linked to the refugees’ legal rights. Gaining refugee status would have also granted them access to basic aid, such as education and medical assistance. Accordingly, many children have been arrested, separated from their families, and forced to return to Afghanistan. They are also asked to pay for their food and transportation while they are detained.

According to the Human Rights Watch report, “Afghan migrant children in Iran can be arrested at virtually any time, with little or no access to legal due process or the protections guaranteed children under international law. Children can be arrested as they move around the towns in which they live.”

In addition, Iran does not grant residency or citizenship to Afghan refugees. Beside these legal inadequacies and abuses, the recruitment of these refugees to fight in another country is a clear method of exploitation of their vulnerable conditions. Promising residency and living salaries to fight in Syria and to help Assad capitalizes on the helplessness of the refugees.

The reasoning, intentions, and rational

First of all, as the conflict continues in Syria, the number of IRGC officers and Hezbollah fighters in Syria has ratcheted up in the last two years. This has led to an increase in the number of casualties among Hezbollah and IRGC fighters. The number of funeral ceremonies in Iran and Lebanon for those IRGC and Hezbollah fighters who lost their lives while fighting for Assad, the Islamic Republic, and Hezbollah, has greatly grown.

The tactical shift by Iranian authorities in finding alternatives to assist Syria can be an answer and solution to deter the increased number of their casualties. The size of Afghan refugees in Iran is enormously significant when it comes to combating, assisting Assad’s forces in the battle, and reducing the required number of trained Iranian and Hezbollah forces.

Secondly, the majority of Afghan refugees living in Iran are Shiite. Beside the monetary and residency incentives given to these refugees, the ideological landscape of the battle is utilized by Tehran– creating a Shiite vs Sunni conflict. This ideological underpinning can be manipulated in order to justify and encourage Afghan refugees to fight in this battle and serve Iran’s national, strategic, security, and geopolitical interests.

In the long-term, this tactical shift can bear significant regional consequences when it comes to the regional balance of power. As the Islamic Republic gave birth to one of the most powerful non-state actors and Shiite groups in the region, Hezbollah, the recruitment and focus on training Afghan refugees can be a new platform to serve Tehran’s interests by strengthening the strategic Shiite alliance in the region.

One of the strategies that the IRGC has mastered, has been giving life to non-state actors, particularly Shiite groups such as the Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM) and the Mahdi Army in order to not only influence the domestic policies of that given country, but to also have leverage over regional politics, and serve Tehran’s regional objectives. What we are witnessing in regards to Iran’s focus on Afghan refugees might give rise to other powerful Shiite non-state actors such as Hezbollah.


Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar as Harvard University, is president of the International American Council and he serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC. He is also a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University and Harvard scholar. He is originally from the Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowships including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at [email protected]

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