After at first covertly sending thousands of undocumented Afghans to fight on the Syrian front, Iran is trumpeting their sacrifice with increasingly public funerals for the fallen and a giant rally planned for Friday in a Tehran square.
Authorities in Kabul and human rights groups have roundly criticized the Iranian government for sending Afghans living in Iran to Syria to fight alongside forces of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in support of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
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. Many of the Afghans were reportedly sent against their will, Human Rights Watch reported, or agreed to fight because of economic remuneration to their families.
Roughly 3 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.
According to Iranian pro-state Mashregh News, the Tehran municipality will hold a ceremony on Friday to honor at least four members of the Afghan militia killed in Syria.
"A commemoration ceremony for the Fatemiyon Brigade martyrs will be held on Friday in Tehran," the pro-IRGC news portal said.
Sayed Hassan Sajjadi, a high-ranking conservative cleric with links to the IRGC, has been reportedly invited as a keynote speaker to the event.
There are no official figures as to how many Afghans from Iran have been killed in Syria. But one civil rights activist in Kabul who advocates for Afghans in Iran told VOA that their casualty numbers are more than 1,000.
Afghan lawmakers last year strongly condemned Tehran for sending refugees to Syria. They also criticized the Afghan government for keeping silent and demanded that the issue be thoroughly investigated. The Afghan foreign ministry said investigations have been launched.
For years since Iran's military involvement in Syria began in 2012, funerals of the fallen Afghans were kept from public view.
Increased military involvement
But increasingly, as Tehran has trumpeted its military involvement in Syria, high-ranking Iranian commanders and officials have been present at the funerals. The ceremonies are often packed with civil servants, university students and faculty.
One Afghan civil activist who attended a rally for Afghan fighters in the holy city of Qum last year said Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, was among the attendees.
Families of fallen fighters are often invited to funerals and rallies and their travel expenses are paid for by the government-funded martyr's organization.
Fatemeh Zia — a relative of fallen Afghan fighter Mehdi Ahmadi, who will be honored in Tehran Friday — said she was invited by the government to attend the commemoration ceremony.
“We received a phone call from the Fatemiyon brigade and they informed us of his death,” Zia said.
The ceremonies for fallen Afghans are religiously based honoring the fighters as Shi'ites the Muslim majority in Iran.
Tehran said its forces are in Syria to protect the Zeinab Shrine in Damascus, a Shi'ite holy site. Iranian-backed forces have been a major backer of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in its war with rebel groups across the country.
Analysts say Iran is holding rallies for fallen Afghans to rally domestic support for its involvement in Syria on religious grounds.
“Iran is trying to divert the attention from Tehran's support for Assad and turn it into something bigger and sacred by glorifying Afghans and Pakistanis killed in Syria,” Rasool Nafisi, a Washington-based Middle East researcher, told VOA. “These casualties help turn domestic attention in Iran into a Shia and religious subject.”