While much ink has been spilled about how Iran’s involvement in the Syrian civil war has fueled sectarianism and instability in the Arab world, the implications of Iran’s increasing recruitment of Afghan and Pakistani Shiites on security and stability in South Asia have largely been overlooked. Over the past five years, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) has recruited, indoctrinated, trained and deployed thousands of Afghan and Pakistani Shiites to fight under its command against Sunni rebel groups across Syria. This has already triggered a violent backlash against Shiites in Afghanistan and Pakistan and threatens to further destabilize the volatile region.
18,000 Afghan Combatants in Syria
In a video published last week in Farsi news sites and circulated on Twitter and Facebook, an Iranian official revealed that 18,000 Afghans were currently fighting in Syria to defend the embattled regime of Iran’s ally Bashar al-Assad. Speaking at a meeting with the grieving family of an Afghan Shiite killed in Syria, Hossein Yekta, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war and a senior recruiter for the IRGC and the Basij Force, briefly explains how the Afghan contingent in Syria, now known as the Fatemiyoun Division, was founded by a couple dozen Afghans in the Iranian city of Mashhad almost six years ago and has now turned into a formidable force in the Syrian war theatre.
While it is difficult to corroborate the exact number of Afghan combatants in Syria, if the 18,000 figure is accurate, Afghan Shiites now constitute the largest Iran-backed militia unit fighting in Syria. The Lebanese Hezbollah, arguably the most skilled and well-trained pro-Assad group, reportedly has only about 5,000 fighters inside Syria. In May 2015, Defa Press, an outlet affiliated with the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Iran, reported that the Fatemiyoun had been upgraded from a brigade to a military division due to its increasing size and operational capabilities. Given that an Iranian military division is said to comprise between 10,000 and 20,000 personnel, the 18,000 figure is not far-fetched.
According to IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency, the Fatemiyoun was founded by leaders of two Afghan Shiite militant groups: Sepah-e Muhammad (Muhammad Army), an Iran-backed group that operated against the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and the Abuzar Brigade, which fought alongside Iranian military forces against Iraq in the 1980s. According to Iranian military sources, more than 2,000 Afghans perished during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. The founder of Fatemiyoun, Alireza Tavasoli, was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war and was a close confidante of Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force; when Tavasoli was killed in Syria, Suleimani visited his family to pay tribute.
The Fatemiyoun’s sister organization, the Zainabyoun Brigade, is much smaller in size and is comprised of hundreds of Shiites from Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province and Parachinar in the Kurram tribal area as well as Pakistanis living inside Iran.
The exact number of Afghan and Pakistani casualties in Syria is unknown, but tracking Syrian casualties in the Iranian media shows the number has increased significantly over the past two years. On November 22, a senior Iranian official admitted that more than 1,000 combatants dispatched by Iran to Syria have been killed. “At present, the number of martyrs defending the shrines has now surpassed 1,000 in our country,” Mohammad Ali Shahidi Mahlati, the head of Iran’s Foundation of Martyrs’ and Veterans’ Affairs, said. Shahid did not reveal nationalities of those killed in Syria, but “defenders of shrines” is a term Iranian officials use for Afghan, Pakistani and Iranian “volunteers” fighting in Syria. It was not clear if the 1,000 figure included IRGC casualties as well. But the actual number could be much higher as many Afghans who have returned from Syria claim dead bodies of fellow combatants had not been reported or transferred back to Iran.
While the Iranian government denies allegations that it coerces Afghans to fight in the Middle East, it makes no secret of the fact that Afghan Shiites fight alongside the IRGC, Hezbollah and Iran-backed Iraqi militias across Syria. Over the past two years, the Iranian state-run media has significantly raised the profile of Afghan and Pakistani combatants. IRGC-affiliated websites publish photographs of Suleimani’s visits to Fatemiyoun units in Syria, and the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting often airs documentaries about the Fatemiyoun Division, lionizing its combatants and encouraging more Afghans to join in.
Furthermore, the IRGC and its Basij Force regularly organize elaborate funeral processions for Afghans and Pakistanis killed in Syria. Recently, senior Iranian civilian and military leaders also participate in the burial ceremonies of Afghan casualties, including officials from Bonyad-e Shahid va Umoor Esaargaran (Iran’s Foundation of Martyrs’ and Veterans’ Affairs), which indicates that the Iranian government pays compensation to the families of the victims.
Recruitment and Rewards
Since the start of the Syrian war, the Afghan refugees in Iran have found an unlikely and influential supporter inside Iran: the IRGC and the Basij Force. Last year, Suleimani acknowledged that the Afghans’ participation in the Syrian conflict had been very “impactful,” and that it had also elevated the status of the Afghan refugees inside Iran. “Today, praise be to God, Afghans are looked at with a different view, different respect. Graves of Afghanistani [Afghan] martyrs are treated like the graves of imamzadeha [sons or grandsons of 12 Shiite imams],” the Quds commander explained.
State-run Iranian media also report that authorities have relaxed restrictions on, and at times stopped deportation of, unregistered Afghans because of their role in the Syrian war. Last year, Iran’s parliament passed legislation granting the government permission to issue citizenship to non-Iranians fighting on Iran’s side. The bill prompted angry reactions in Afghanistan. “The current move by Iran is in violation of international laws and human rights because they are exploiting Afghanistan’s situation and send our countrymen to the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen in exchange for citizenship and incentives,” said Afghan lawmaker Obaidullah Barekzai.
Interviews with Fatemiyoun militants with the Afghan media demonstrate that the IRGC recruits destitute and undocumented Afghan refugees by offering them permanent residency, financial aid, and other incentives for their families. Others say they joined Iran’s war in Syria to escape prison sentences. Of some 2.5 million Afghans living in Iran, a third are registered as refugees while the remainder are mostly illegal economic migrants.
However, not all Afghan Shiites fight in Syria for money or legal status. Many also go to Syria for ideological, religious and political reasons. The profiles of senior Fatemiyoun commanders, for example, show that they are neither poor nor illegal migrants. Many are born in Iran, studied in religious seminaries in Qom, and have had long-standing ties with the IRGC and the Basij Force. For example, Sayed Mohammad Mehdi Hashemi-Nejad, an Afghan Shiite student who studied in religious seminaries in Qom and was killed in Syria last year, was born in Mashhad. His father, Hojatoleslam Sayed Habibollah Hashemi-Nejad, was a teacher at a Qom seminary. His body was recently discovered in Palmyra. Similarly, Reza Bakhshi, the deputy commander of the Fatemiyoun Division killed in Syria, was also born in Iran. Some Afghan religious and cultural organizations in Iran reportedly help the IRGC’s recruitment efforts for the Syrian war.
Recently, the IRGC has also launched an active recruitment drive of Shiite Hazaras inside Afghanistan. Last August, Afghan authorities arrested an Iranian official on charges of “recruiting Afghan Shiite fighters and sending them to Syria.” Qurban Ghalambor, the suspect, is reportedly a representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The Basij has reportedly opened a new “headquarters” in Herat to indoctrinate and recruit Afghans. Afghanistan’s largest daily Hasht-e Sobh reports that some tourist companies help transfer young Afghans from Kabul and Herat to Iran to be trained and deployed to Syria.
The Shiite Hazara community makes up about 15 percent of Afghanistan’s population. Although Hazara leaders have not joined Iran’s war in Syria, some clerics, who are either on the Iranian payroll or ideologically close to the Iranian clerical establishment in Qom, actively justify and propagate a pan-Shiite “jihad” in Syria and beyond. "We believe that jihad should be done against Daesh [Islamic State] because this movement has been made by infidel countries. No matter that our brothers are fighting in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan or any other country. A Muslim should help other Muslims when called for help. This is an Islamic act," Ahmad Ali Jebraieli, a Shiite cleric from Herat, for example, said last month. Some Afghan Shiite leaders allege that the Iranian embassy in Kabul coordinates the IRGC’s recruitment process across Afghanistan.
Likewise in Pakistan, IRGC operatives run recruitment programs in Urdu-language websites, offering Pakistanis willing to fight in Syria up to $3,000.
IRGC Training Centers
Iran provides military training to Afghan and Pakistani Shiites both on its soil and inside Syria. The IRGC reportedly provides a four-week, pre-deployment training to Fateimyoun combatants at a “special training base” inside Iran. US intelligence agencies have identified nine training camps inside Iran where Afghans and Pakistanis are being trained. One Afghan who had returned from Syria told Hasht-e Sobh that he, along with other Afghans, received training at a military headquarters in Iran’s Yazd Province, and were subsequently transferred to a an IRGC-run military center called Imam Hossein Base located in “Khanteman” region of Aleppo.
Backlash in Afghanistan and Pakistan
The increasing role of Afghan and Pakistani Shiites in defending the Assad regime comes at a time when their fellow Sunni countrymen are fighting on the opposing side in Syria – sparking fears that they will fuel sectarian tension in their respective countries once they return. “It is likely that Sunni and Shiite Afghans fighting in Syria and Yemen return someday and their sectarian grudges get them to fight each other at home,” warned Hasht-e Sobh.
The consequences are already felt in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The so-called Islamic State and Punjabi sectarian groups such as Lashkar-e Jhangvi have claimed credit for terrorist attacks against the Shiite communities in both countries and blamed Shiites’ participation in the Syrian conflict. Last year, the Islamic State’s South Asia branch killed and injured hundreds of Shiite Hazars in Kabul, and threatened to carry out more attacks against Shiites “unless they stop going to Syria and stop being slaves of Iran.” Since 2010 in Pakistan, more than 550 sectarian attacks have killed about 2,300 people – mostly Shiites – and the Syrian conflict threatens to further exacerbate sectarian tension in the country.
Moreover, the recruitment and indoctrination of thousands of Afghan and Pakistani Shiites allow Iran, once the Syrian war is over, to further its influence and sectarian agenda in Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent in Pakistan, at the expense of South Asian stability and the interests of the United States and its allies in the region.