Iran-backed Afghan fighters in Syria vow to battle Israel and Saudi Arabia next

By Ahmad Majidyar | Fellow and Director of IranObserved Project - The Middle East Institute | Feb 27, 2018
Iran-backed Afghan fighters in Syria vow to battle Israel and Saudi Arabia next

Sayed Ali-Asghar Hosseini, an Afghan national living in Iran, says he hopes to quickly recover from injuries he sustained in the Syrian conflict in order to return to the Arab country and take part in the next phase of war against Israel and Saudi Arabia. “Our real war with Israel and the al-Saud family is still there. I hope to make it to this battle,” he told Defa Press, a mouthpiece of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Basij Organization.

Originally from northern Afghanistan, Hosseini was born in the Iranian city of Mashhad 33 years ago. He is married with two daughters and they live in a Mashhad suburb called Golshahr, where most residents are from Afghanistan. According to Defa Press, more than 100 Afghan men from the neighborhood have been killed in Syria over the past years.

Hosseini’s family have had close ties with the IRGC since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. His grandfather and father both fought alongside the Iranian military forces in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and his uncle, a member of IRGC-backed Sepah-e Mohammad, was killed in Afghanistan in the 1990s.

Before deploying to Syria, Hosseini worked as a daily wager in the construction field. He was injured in the battle of Aleppo and underwent three surgeries inside Syria before being transferred to Baqiatalah Hospital in Tehran. Major General Qassem Soleimani, the chief commander of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force, which is responsible for external operations, visited Hosseini in the hospital in Tehran – indicating the Quds Force commander’s close relations with the Hosseini family. A photo of Soleimani with Hosseini and his father in the hospital is hanged in Hosseini’s home in Mashhad.

Comment: Hosseini’s remarks indicate that the mission of the Fatemiyoun Division, an all-Afghan Afghan Shiite militia group fighting in Syria, will not end with the defeat of ISIS.  Indeed, in a statement last November, Fatemiyoun commanders and fighters congratulated Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Soleimani on the fall of ISIS, and emphasized that they will continue to fight alongside the “axis of resistance” to annihilate Israel. “Thanks to the leadership of the Leader of the Islamic World [Khamenei] and your [Soleimani’s] supreme command and prudence, a group of men have now emerged from Afghanistan and joined the axis of resistance. With their respected commander, they have sworn that they will not sit down until the elimination of the international Zionism.”

The Afghan militia group also sent a veiled threat to the United States. “We believe that although the existence of murderous Daesh [ISIS] in Iraq and Syria has come to an end, but Daesh’s masters in Tel Aviv and Washington will not remain idle and will continue to inflame violence, hatred and tragedy in the broader Islamic community, among both Shiites and Sunnis,” the statement added. “Here, we declare that after completely cleansing the Syrian territory from Takfiri terrorists and establishing full security Hazrat Zainab shrine and Sayyidah Ruqayya Mosque, we are ready to help the oppressed anywhere in the world under the leadership of beloved Imam Khamenei.”

Furthermore, recent statements by Fatemiyoun and IRGC leaders indicate that Iran will not disband the Fatemiyoun after the Syrian war is over but will use the battle-hardened Afghan combatants in other regional wars. Last year, the deputy commander of the Quds Force, Ismail Qaani, said Fatemiyoun fighters “do not recognize borders to defend Islamic values” and to “foil the plot of the Global Arrogance [U.S.] and bloodthirsty Zionism [Israel].” He also stressed that Fatemiyoun’s mission is not confined to Syria. Afghan officials allege that Iran has dispatched a number of Fatemiyoun to fight in Yemen and express the worry that the IRGC may also use Afghan Shiite fighters for proxy wars in Afghanistan once the Syrian conflict is over.

In recent years, Fatemiyoun fighters have also established close operational links with the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militia groups such as Harakat al-Nujaba. On March 29, Harakat al-Nujaba, which fights under the IRGC’s leadership in both Iraq and Syria, said that Israel, not Sunni militants, is the real enemy and sought Damascus’s permission to fight Israeli forces stationed in the Golan region.

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 Suleimani; when Tavasoli was killed in Syria, Soleimani visited his family to pay tribute. Over the past six years, the IRGC has recruited, indoctrinated, trained and deployed thousands of Afghan Shiites to fight under its command against Sunni rebel groups across Syria. The Fatemiyoun Division has about 20,000 active fighters, according to accounts provided by Iranian officials.

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, as Hosseini’s family profile demonstrates, 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 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.