News / Middle East

    Iran Sending Afghan Refugees to Fight in Syria

    FILE - Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard march in front of the mausoleum of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini outside Tehran, Sept. 2014.
    FILE - Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard march in front of the mausoleum of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini outside Tehran, Sept. 2014.
    Noor ZahidMehdi Jedinia

    Iran has sent thousands of undocumented Shi'ite Afghan refugees to Syria to fight alongside forces of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard forces in support of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, sources in Iran and Afghanistan told VOA.

    Thousands of Afghans from Iran are in the “Fatemiyon Brigade,” the second largest group of foreigners fighting for Assad in Syria. Western media estimate their numbers at between 10,000 and 12,000.

    Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on Friday that some Afghans are sent against their will. Iran has said Afghans are going to Syria voluntarily.

    Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is also fighting for Assad in Syria, recruits Afghans with promises of Iranian citizenship and improved living standards for their families.

    “Iran has not just offered Afghan refugees and migrants incentives to fight in Syria, but several said they were threatened with deportation back to Afghanistan unless they did [complied],” Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

    Afghan fighters are paid between $400 and $600 per month, said Phillip Smyth a researcher at the University of Maryland and author of the blog "Hezbollah Cavalcade." Some Afghans are pulled from prisons to go fight in the battlefields of Syria, Smyth said.

    “In other cases, undocumented Afghan [Shi'ite] refugees are threatened with jail time if they don't serve,” he said.

    Roughly three million Afghans live in Iran. Most settled there after fleeing war and conflict in their homeland. Many Afghans in Iran lack basic rights and live without a formal status. About 950,000 are classified as refugees.

    Afghans in Iran sent to Syria come mainly from Qum and Mashhad — centers for a majority of the Afghan diaspora.

    Iranian sources told VOA that Afghans are being sent to the Syrian frontlines to defend the Zeinab Shrine, a holy site for Shi’ite Muslims.

    Syrian rebel commanders say they face Afghan fighters throughout the country.

    “Their presence has been stronger than ever,” said Islam Alloush, spokesman for the Army of Islam, the main opposition force in eastern Damascus.

    “But they are mainly based in Aleppo,” he told VOA. “They have units around Damascus. The regime relies on them because it is running out of manpower.”

    The commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Major General Qassem Soleimani, has paid visits to the Afghan brigade in Syria, according to Iranian media reports, and took pictures with some of its members.

    The Afghan units have been trained in Lebanon-based camps run by Hezbollah and fight alongside the Lebanese militant group in Syria, researcher Smyth said. Most of them reportedly receive anywhere from 10 days to one month of preliminary training in Mashhad and in southern outskirts of Tehran prior to their deployment to Syria, Iranian sources told VOA.

    Reports indicate that Afghan casualties in Syria are mounting as Iranian-backed fighters have become a major ground force for the Assad regime.

    Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies who tracks Syrian war casualties, told VOA that more than 200 Afghan fighters have been killed in Syria since September 2012.

    “They are lured in to sacrifice their lives for a few hundred dollars,” Mujtaba Jalali, an Iranian-born Afghan photographer from Mashhad who covered the public funerals of Afghan fighters, told VOA.

    The families of Afghans who serve in Syria receive benefits in Iran.

    “This is a very good gateway for some Afghan refugees to put their step into a new life if they come back alive,” a Tehran-based Afghan who lost his brother in the Syria fighting told VOA on the condition of anonymity.

    “In our case, my brother sacrificed himself for his family,” he said. “My mother can now receive medicine for her ill heart and the rest of family gained Iranian valid documentation.”

    Iran’s Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs offers financial help, spiritual support, and medical expenses for the families of Afghan casualties. But Human Rights Watch said in its report on Friday that compensation is arbitrary. The Afghan government says it is investigating reports of Afghans fighting in Syria.

    Qayyum Sajjadi, a Shi’ite parliament member in Afghanistan, says the harsh socioeconomic circumstances that Afghan refugees face in Iran force them to participate in regional conflicts.

    “These youths in Iran are sent to Syria where they either die or get captured by opposition groups,” Jamaluddin Sayyar, head of the provincial council in Afghanistan's Kunar province, told Radio Liberty.

    Human Rights Watch said that Iran must stop using Afghans to fight in Syria.

    “Iran should be offering greater protection to Afghan refugees, not coercively recruiting them to fight for Assad,” HRW’s Bouckaert said in a statement.

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    Comment Sorting
    by: Marcus Aurelius II from: NJ USA
    January 30, 2016 1:54 PM
    That's one way to solve the refugee problem. Of course it's a violation of international law and the Geneva Conventions but that's never brought up when it's the bad guys who do it. I don't think they'd be of much military value, most are just people who left because they were frightened, hungry, and afraid of being killed or captured by the Taleban. Iran is not just a supporter of terrorism, it is a terrorist state. I don't understand why Iran hasn't been attacked by someone already. They threaten practically every nation in the region and are still committed to the ultimate destruction of the United States.

    by: gentiler
    January 30, 2016 5:50 AM
    You ain't seen nothing yet, the ultimate aim of the US,UK,EU side kicks and Israel is the downfall of Al Saud dynasty, Ayatollah's run Iran and Putin, the Middle East will be destroyed in the process, check CounterPunch for the real news on this

    by: MKhattib from: USA
    January 29, 2016 9:38 PM
    It's amazing sometimes to see the leaps of logic some pro-Iran cheerleaders go to in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary that Iran is having an adverse and substantial impact Iran is having on the Middle East as a whole. From its funding or Hezbollah, and the support of Yemeni rebels, Assad in Syria and former Maliki in Iraq which gave rise to ISIS, there is no debate about the pervasiveness of Iranian influence, especially militarily on its neighbors. Iran's military involvements outside its borders have become so commonplace it generally engenders a shrug from most people. That is the most unfortunate and dangerous aspect of Iran's activities. The fact that it is commonplace and destabilizing a region that is quickly spiraling into sectarian strife is what should be most concerning to Washington policy makers and the Obama administration.

    by: meanbill from: USA
    January 29, 2016 8:55 PM
    Believe it or not... The US and almost all European countries, the British Isles, Russia and Asian countries, recruited foreign mercenaries (volunteers or not) since ancient times, to fight in their militaries with a promise of citizenship, and what the Iranians are doing now has been done by everybody else before? .. Don't condemn them for doing it now? .. It's a great way to become an American, a Frenchman, or a British subject? .. isn't it? .. Remember that's why there are so many Frenchmen of North African ancestry? .. and British subjects of Asian ancestry? .. think about it?

    by: kanaikaal irumporai
    January 29, 2016 8:55 PM
    This is the real thing!, because of the man-power problem, different groups chant different slogans to enlist as many as possible. There's nothing called an Islamic Caliphat, but those individuals who started the cause, saw no way of recruiting substantial fighting force among their own populations. These people are tired of war and have become more amd more selfish and would do anything to survive, that they'd better cross into Europe rather than fight the Westerners who plunder their natural resources. While this being the case, the Caliphat-people took Islamic slogan, attracting the attention of some youth in the West who being marginalised for many reasons, they go and fight for them. To counter this, Iran's faction need to do it's part. Transcending this, the US and allies simply use the situation to sell more arms to the panicked regimes in the region and cause all sorts of problems for their own citizens.

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