Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 November 2019

Iran ‘enlists Afghan refugees as fighters to bolster Syria’s Bashar Al Assad’

Tehran has denied the allegations but interviews with Afghan fighters and relatives of combatants killed in Syria point to a vigorous – and sometimes coerced – recruitment drive of Shiite Hazara refugees from Afghanistan by Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards Corps.

KABUL // The fate of two brothers from Kabul, one grievously wounded, the other killed fighting in Syria, highlights Iran’s covert but active recruitment of Afghan refugees to bolster president Bashar Al Assad’s steadily depleting forces.

Iran, Mr Al Assad’s key military and financial patron, denies enlisting Afghan mercenaries to fight alongside Syrian forces in the four-year conflict against opposition Sunni rebels that has left more than 240,000 people dead and millions displaced.

But interviews with Afghan fighters and relatives of combatants killed in Syria point to a vigorous – and sometimes coerced – recruitment drive of Shiite Hazara refugees from Afghanistan by Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards Corps in an effort to prop up Mr Al Assad’s floundering regime.

Tears well up in Jehantab’s rheumy eyes as she recalls the haunting parting words of her husband, 35-year-old Haider, when he called two months ago from Tehran: “I am going to Syria – and I may not come back.”

“‘Very few fighters survive Syria’s brutal conflict’, he told me,” said Jehantab, swaddled in a white scarf and sitting with three young children on the floor of her Kabul home.

Haider, she said, was lured by the monthly salary of US$700 (Dh2,571) – a tidy sum for a labourer with no combat experience – and the promise of an Iranian residency permit, an attractive inducement for refugees who otherwise live in constant fear of deportation.

“I begged him: ‘Don’t go, don’t kill yourself for money’,” said Jehantab.

Haider’s premonition came true – a few days after he left, an Iranian official informed his relatives, also refugees in Tehran, that he had been killed in battle.

Haider was part of a growing wave of jobless young Afghans seeking shelter in neighbouring Iran from decades of turmoil and war tearing their country apart, only to be ensnared in another conflict.

“In terms of how they are recruited, deployed, and utilised in Syria, many Afghan Shiite fighters have suffered the fate of being used as cannon fodder,” said Phillip Smyth, an expert on Shiite militant groups, who estimates there are 2,000 to 3,500 Afghans currently fighting in Syria.

“Some are coerced to fight, others promised residency papers for their family, and a small salary. It demonstrates Iran’s exploitation of Afghan Shiite refugees.”

The Iranian embassy in Kabul said it rejects allegations that Tehran is enlisting Afghan refugees as “completely baseless”.

But in a video posted online apparently by anti-Assad rebels last year, a dazed and bloodied Afghan militiaman is seen confessing that he was an illegal immigrant in Iran, where authorities offered him $600 a month to fight in Syria – or face deportation.

It was not possible to verify the authenticity of the video.

But some Afghans like 27-year-old Mohammed have joined the fight to protect their sect, in particular to defend the golden-domed Sayyeda Zainab, a prominent Shiite shrine located in a Damascus suburb.

A former construction labourer in Tehran, seven months ago he said he was flown on a civilian place with dozens of other Afghan fighters to Damascus after a week-long weapons-training course.

Part of the all-Afghan Fatemiyoun brigade, named after the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter Fatima, Mohammed said that he fought alongside Hizbollah.

“Iran has no combat troops in Syria but the command is in their control,” Mohammed said in Kabul, pulling up his shirt to reveal a sutured shrapnel wound.

He said that 19 of his Afghan colleagues has been killed in one firefight near Damascus with ISIL fighters desperate to achieve “martyrdom”.

“The Islamic State is a common enemy of Iran and Afghanistan,” said Mohammed. “This is a holy war.”

The rise of Fatemiyoun and other Iran-backed forces made up of Iraqis, Lebanese and Pakistani Shiites underscores Mr Al Assad’s growing reliance on foreign mercenaries as rebels ramp up attacks on Damascus.

In a rare admission in July, the Syrian president, who has faced a series of recent battlefield losses, acknowledged a manpower shortage faced by his government’s army amid growing deaths and defections.

Back in Jehantab’s home, Haider’s cousin Zahra consoled her and quietly fumed over his death “in a war that isn’t ours”.

“Going to Syria is like signing up for a suicide mission,” Zahra said in a phone call to Haider’s brother Hussein who also volunteered to fight in Syria. During fighting there he suffered a deep shrapnel wound to his stomach.

“I’m OK. There were 300-400 of us [Afghans]. Many died, I survived,” Hussein said in a frail voice from a hospital bed in Tehran just before he was about to be wheeled into surgery.

“I hear you plan to go back? Don’t do that. Find work in Iran,” Zahra told him.

“There’s no work in Iran,” Hussein said.

As the line went dead, Zahra’s face dropped in her hands.

“Afghan lives have no value – both inside and outside Afghanistan,” she said.

* Agence France-Presse

Updated: August 26, 2015 04:00 AM

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