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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

How Iran used religion, threats and money to sign Afghans up to Syria fight

Over the past four years, thousands of Afghan men have been recruited by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force to fight ISIL in Syria

Amir displays a photo of himself in his battle fatigues, during his training in Iran in 2015. Kern Hendricks / The National.
Amir displays a photo of himself in his battle fatigues, during his training in Iran in 2015. Kern Hendricks / The National.

On his first night fighting ISIL in Syria's Aleppo province, Afghan Ali Hoshman witnessed the death of 41 of his fellow militiamen.

“We lost that battle along with 30 Afghan and 11 Iranian colleagues, one of whom was my bunk mate,” he said.

Over the next five months, Ali, now 25, would witness countless deaths, strengthening his resolve to be a part of the forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.

Ali — not his real name — is one of the thousands of Afghans recruited over the past four years by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force to fight in Syria as part of the Fatemiyoun division on behalf of the Assad government.

Under the pretext of protecting Shiite interests in the region and drawing clear sectarian lines in the battle against ISIL, Iran — one of Mr Al Assad's main backers — has mobilised Shiite communities from Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan to join the fight.

“An essential part of it all is the promise to protect Shia holy shrines in Syria,” said Ahmad Shuja, an Afghan researcher and political analyst. “That is the ideological motivator to top off the money, residency and coercion.”

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Ali's main motivation was religious.

“I don’t care about the larger politics; I did this for my faith," he said. "How could I not after witnessing the kind of atrocities Daesh has been committing against the Shias in Syria?"

“What they have done to Nubl and Al Zahara is unacceptable," he added, referring to majority-Shiite cities that were besieged by the extremist group. "For over a year, the citizens were trapped and had no access to food, and basic amenities. There was no way to reach them.”

“And even if you don’t care about the Shias, as human beings, it is our obligation to act against this.”

The siege on Nubl and Al Zahara was broken by Syrian government forces a few weeks before Ali travelled to Iran in the spring of last year, taking a break from university in Afghanistan to join the Fatemiyoun fighters.

While Ali said his faith motivated him to sign up to the fight against ISIL, for many young men among the more than two million estimated undocumented Afghan refugees living in Iran, there is little in terms of choice.

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released in October highlighted Iran's recruitment of underage Afghans for the Fatemiyoun division, as well as the coercion used. According to the report, there are at least eight Afghan children buried in Iran who fought and died in Syria.

“Iran is using a combination of factors to recruit,” said Mr Shuja. “There are also the offers you cannot refuse — which is when Iran says to them: fight in Syria or be deported."

"It's basically a carrot [and stick] approach,” he added. “Then there's residency and money.”

Salaries for the fighters can be as much as US$1,000 (Dh3,672) per month along with health care and housing for the fighter and his family.

“They don’t force you,” Ali said. “They make you and one of your family members sign a document that you agreed to go of your own free will.”

But he does admit that many Afghans sign up for the money and Iranian residency offered.

“I didn’t accept the residency since I always wanted to return to my homeland,” he said.

Ali received about three weeks of battlefield training in Iran before being sent to a district in Syria close to Aleppo city, the provincial capital. Thanks to his knowledge of mathematics and engineering, which he was studying at university, Ali was put in charge of calibrating the targets for artillery.

“I made many friends and I lost many of them in that period,” he said of the five months he spent fighting in Syria as he showed videos on his phone of exchanges of fire between the Quds-affiliated forces and ISIL.

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But Ali said that what he witnessed in Syria only strengthened his resolve to be part of the fight and that he has no regrets about his decision to join the Fatemiyoun division. Rather, he is proud of the role that he and his fellow militiamen played in defeating ISIL — and said their presence was well received by Syrians.

“The Afghan fighters were very welcomed by the locals,” he said. "They gave us fuel and felafels when we travelled through their villages."

Two of Ali's fellow fighters married Syrian women and returned to Iran with them to live, he said.

Each time a battalion of the Fatemiyoun division returned to Iran, its fighters received a heroes’ welcome. Colourful posters displayed in cities across the country painted the militiamen as brave warriors and martyrs of the faith, while streets have been renamed to honour fallen fighters.

Senior Iranian leaders visited the families of Fatemiyoun members to thank them for their sacrifice.

In Afghanistan, however, it is a different story. Returning fighters face criticism from fellow Afghans, as well as threats from ISIL groups and legal challenges from the government.

“The Afghan government, especially [the National Directorate of Security], is cracking down on the returning fighters," Ali said, adding that the intelligence agency has said that those who joined the Fatemiyoun division will be jailed for six months.

The criticism levelled at the Afghans who left their country to become Fatemiyoun fighters included accusations that they support the Iranian regime, have betrayed Afghanistan and that they have invited ISIL attacks to the country.

A recent statement by Mohammad Mohaqiq, the Shiite deputy vice president of Afghanistan, that lauded the fighters drew strong condemnation from across Afghanistan and many regard the remarks as an attack on the country’s national interests. An Afghan government spokesman denounced the statement and said an investigation was being launched into the matter.

“We are against any proxy war in other countries. Afghan sons are being sacrificed for defending the country’s territorial integrity,” said Shah Hussain Murtazawi, the president's deputy spokesman.

"No Afghan should be killed or sacrificed for the defence of other countries’ interests."

Ali has little to say about the statement from Mr Mohaqiq or the political drama that ensued.

"What Mohaqiq says doesn’t matter to me or whether the government approves of it," he said. "Those are political games."

"I wasn’t fighting on behalf of Iran, and I don’t care what the world thinks of Iran. I joined Fatemiyoun because it gave me a way to defend my faith."

Comparing joining the Fatemiyoun division to joining the national Afghan army, he said, "I’ve heard as an Afghan army soldier you can’t shoot Taliban here. There were no such restrictions as Fatemiyoun fighter".

But fighters returning to Afghanistan remain in constant fear of their lives from pro-ISIL insurgents who target the country's Shiite communities. Over the past year, ISIL-affiliated groups have claimed six attacks against Shiite worshippers in Kabul alone. Such is the fear that Fatemiyoun fighters and their families in Kabul refuse to speak about their experiences in case they are identified and associated with the division.

Even Ali, who is fiercely defensive of his decision to go to Syria, is afraid. Weary and distrustful, he did not want his real name nor his photo to be used in this interview.

“Only my close family and a couple of friends know that I fought in Syria,” he said.

“The biggest challenge in Afghanistan is that we can’t be sure of who Daesh really is,” he added, referring to the shifting dynamic between insurgent groups.

But despite his fear, he believes there is cause for optimism.

"We can be a resource,” he said. “Instead of targeting us, the Afghan government can utilise the expertise of the Fatemiyoun fighters to set up an anti-Daesh unit in Afghanistan,” he added, quoting a popular Persian phrase, Agaar pishte garam bosha, which literally translates to “If your back is warm”, implying that if the former Fatemiyoun fighters have the backing of the Afghan government then they will be able to contribute to the fight against ISIL.

“Daesh is poisonous and if we don’t control it here, Afghanistan could turn into another Syria. We must not allow that."