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.

    Explainer: The Syrian Civil Wari
    November 04, 2015 4:14 PM
    How did the crisis in Syria evolve and who are the key players? This short video gives you the basic facts about the ongoing civil war.

    You May Like

    US-Russia Tensions Complicate Syria War

    With a shared enemy and opposing allies, Russia and the US are working to avoid confrontation

    Video Re-opening Old Wounds in Beirut's Bullet-riddled Yellow House

    Built in neo-Ottoman style in 1920s, it is set to be re-opened in Sept. as ‘memory museum’ - bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity

    Cambodian-Americans Lobby for Human Rights Resolution

    Resolution condemns all forms of political violence in Cambodia, urges Cambodian government to end human rights violations, calls for respect of press freedom

    This forum has been closed.
    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.

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territoryi
    June 24, 2016 9:38 PM
    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.

    Video Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territory

    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.

    Video Experts: Very Few Killed in US Gun Violence Are Victims of Mass Shootings

    The deadly shooting at a Florida nightclub has reignited the debate in the U.S. over gun control. Although Congress doesn't provide government health agencies funds to study gun violence, public health experts say private research has helped them learn some things about the issue. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.

    Video Trump Unleashes Broadside Against Clinton to Try to Ease GOP Doubts

    Recent public opinion polls show Republican Donald Trump slipping behind Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election matchup for November. Trump trails her both in fundraising and campaign organization, but he's intensifying his attacks on the former secretary of state. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapide’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.

    Video Florida Gets $1 Million in Emergency Government Funding for Orlando

    The U.S. government has granted $1 million in emergency funding to the state of Florida to cover the costs linked to the June 12 massacre in Orlando. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the grant Tuesday in Orlando, where she met with survivors of the shooting attack that killed 49 people. Zlatica Hoke reports.

    Video How to Print Impossible Shapes with Metal

    3-D printing with metals is rapidly becoming more advanced. As printers become more affordable, the industry is partnering with universities to refine processes for manufacturing previously impossible things. A new 3-D printing lab aims to bring the new technology closer to everyday use. VOA's George Putic reports.

    Video Big Somali Community in Minnesota Observes Muslim Religious Feast

    Ramadan is widely observed in the north central US state of Minnesota, which a large Muslim community calls home. VOA Somali service reporter Mohmud Masadde files this report from Minneapolis, the state's biggest city.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora