How Iran Recruited Afghan Refugees to Fight Assad’s War
By ALI M. LATIFI
Afghan immigrants working at a brick kiln in Pakdasht, Iran. Millions of undocumented Afghans live in Iran.CreditFatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency, via Getty Images
BAMIAN, Afghanistan — War and poverty have scattered Afghans across the globe like pieces of shrapnel. Millions of Afghans came of age in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran or as workers in the Persian Gulf nations. The migration continues. The past few years have added a new lethal geography to the Afghan diaspora: the battlefields of President Bashar al-Assad’s Syria.
Two years ago, Abdol Amin, 19, left his home in the Foladi Valley in Bamian, one of Afghanistan’s poorest provinces, to find work in Iran. Two million undocumented Afghans and a million Afghans with refugee status already lived in Iran. His sister and brother-in-law lived in Isfahan. He hoped to improve on his life of subsistence farming in impoverished Bamian.
Two-thirds of the population in Bamian Province lives on less than $25 a month. The intense poverty and the absence of opportunity forces thousands of young Afghans from Bamian to travel illegally to Iran in search of work. Many, like Mr. Amin, end up fighting other’s people’s wars.
Mr. Amin managed to earn a meager wage, about $200 a month, as a bricklayer in Isfahan. Last year, he used his modest savings and went to Iraq with a group of fellow Afghan refugees for a pilgrimage to Karbala, the city where Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was killed in A.D. 680.
Elated after his pilgrimage, Mr. Amin returned to Iran but couldn’t find any work for three months. As often happens with Afghan refugees in Iran, Mr. Amin was humiliated and discriminated against. He lived with the constant fear of being deported. “Iran isn’t our country. It belongs to strangers,” Mr. Amin said. “Either you suffer and try to make some money or you die.”
Last winter Iranian authorities presented Mr. Amin with a proposition. He could gain legal status in Iran and be free of the fear of deportation. The Iranians offered him a 10-year residency permit and $800 a month if he would go to Syria to “fight to protect” the shrine of Sayyida Zainab, a granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad.
Around 2013, when Mr. Assad’s military was losing ground to the rebels, Iran poured billions of dollars into Syria, brought in Hezbollah fighters and began raising Shiite militias from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places with significant Shiite populations. Iran does want to protect the major Shiite shrines in Damascus, Aleppo and Raqqa, but the use of foreign Shiite militias in the Syria war was simply another element in the larger battle for control and influence in the Middle East run by Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ elite Quds Force.
The relationship between Iran and Syria goes back to the Syrian support for Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. They also share an enmity toward Israel, and Syria is the essential axis of transit between Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Most of the weapons in the Hezbollah inventory are sent by Iran through Syria. Mr. Assad’s control over Syria allows Tehran to resupply Hezbollah and work toward building a connection to the Mediterranean Sea.
A few months after Iran asked Hezbollah to join the fighting in Syria alongside Mr. Assad’s forces, it began raising other Shiite militias. The Fatemiyoun Division (formerly Brigade), a militia of Shiite Afghan refugees, was formed around early 2014 and trained by both the Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah veterans. Its strength has been estimated at 8,000 to and 14,000 men. The Iranian authorities maintain the fighters are volunteers.
The initial recruits to the Fatemiyoun Division were initially Shiite Hazara Afghans, who settled in Iran after the Soviet occupation, after the civil war in the early 1990s and the subsequent Taliban rule. Their recruitment had echoes of how Pakistan — the other major host of the Afghan refugee population — recruited the Sunni Pashtun Afghan refugees and their children to form the Taliban in the mid-1990s.
In the past few years, Iranians have expanded recruitment to undocumented Afghans, like Mr. Amin, recently arrived from Afghanistan in search of economic opportunity. Apart from the refugees’ economic anxiety and precarious legal status, the Iranians exploit the Shia faith of Afghan refugees to recruit them to fight for the Assad regime in Syria.
Iranian propaganda framed the Syrian war to these refugees as a Shiite struggle for the defense and protection of the faith and its holy sites. “The fighters have little or no knowledge of the political-security context into which they are marching,” said Ahmad Shuja, a former researcher with Human Rights Watch. “They do not speak Arabic, most of them have never been beyond Afghanistan or Iran, many are barely literate, most are devout Shiites.”
Mr. Amin, for example, believed that the Syrian war resulted from a dispute between the Nusra Front jihadist group (which was officially founded in 2012) and Mr. Assad. He had been made to believe that the war broke out after the leader of Nusra (who, he said, was related to Mr. Assad) wanted to build a store over a mosque. Mr. Assad, an Alawite, rushed to defend the mosque and protect all religious sites, especially the Shiite shrines, in the country. In turn, in Mr. Amin’s telling, Nusra called for Mr. Assad’s downfall and the destruction of shrines.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah fighters trained Mr. Amin and the Afghan recruits of the Fatemiyoun Division in using weapons and tactical movement for a month. Some were trained as snipers; some were trained in tank warfare. After the training they were flown to Syria and sent to the front lines in Damascus and Aleppo.
Iranians and Mr. Assad’s forces used the Afghan recruits as the first-wave shock troops. “We would be the first in any operation,” Mr. Amin recalled. Several short memoirs by current and former Afghan fighters in Syria published on the Telegram app, which Mr. Shuja studied, recount the Afghans’ being sent to fight the most difficult battles, and speak about heavy casualties among Afghan fighters and the eventual victory after multiple assaults.
Afghans have fought in Damascus, Hama, Lattakia, Deir al-Zor, Homs, Palmyra and Aleppo. In November and December, Mr. Amin was stationed in Aleppo, where the Fatemiyoun Division had the job of helping the Syrian Army retake the eastern part of the city from rebel groups. He and hundreds of other young Afghans fought under the orders of the Revolutionary Guard.
The foreign Shiite militias played a crucial role in supporting Mr. Assad’s regime and provided the key ground forces in the decisive battle of Aleppo. The victory in Aleppo turned the tide for Mr. Assad and for Iran, bringing it closer to, as the Syria scholar Joshua Landis put it, “the consolidation of this Iranian security arc, stretching from Lebanon to Iran.”
Several hundred Afghans have died fighting Mr. Assad’s and Iran’s war in Syria. The bodies of slain Afghan fighters were paraded around the streets of Tehran and in Qom, in northern Iran, in elaborate ceremonies before their burials. The Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and General Suleimani have visited the families of Afghan militiamen killed in Syria and expressed gratitude for the sacrifices their sons made in defending the holy shrines and Islam.
In January, I met Murtaza, a 21-year-old Afghan at the Elliniko Airport refugee camp in Athens. He had lived in Qom. “They never make a show of the Iranian fighters who die in Syria, only the Afghans,” said Murtaza, who claimed to have seen graves of hundreds of Afghans killed in Syria in Qom. “It is their way of trying to convince the Iranian people that only Afghans, and not Iranians, are dying in Syria.”
In June 2016, Haitham Maleh, a Syrian opposition leader, addressed a letter to President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan requesting an end to the influx of Afghan fighters. Afghan deaths in Mr. Assad’s war have forced several Afghan clerics to speak out against the Iranian strategy. Even Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the warlord who recently made a peace deal with the Afghan government, spoke about it on his return to Kabul. Some estimates put the number of Afghans killed in Syria around 600. Mr. Amin said 15 of his friends were killed in Syria.
After being wounded in Aleppo, Mr. Amin returned to Bamian two months ago with a 10-year Iranian residency in hand and promise of a home in Iran, or in postwar Syria, if he would like to live there. A majority of the Afghans who fought with him in Syria have stayed in Iran. He keeps in touch with them on the Telegram app.
Bamian remains peaceful and poor; the roads leading to the province are still dangerous. Mr. Amin has returned to his old life as a subsistence farmer. “I came back because I wanted to see what would work out better,” Mr. Amin told me. “If things are good here, I will stay. If they get worse, then I will go back to Iran, but now I don’t have to worry about deportation.”