Iran Recruited Afghan Refugees to Fight Assad’s War

War and poverty have scattered Afghans across the globe like pieces of shrapnel. Millions of Afghans came of age in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran or as workers in the Persian Gulf nations. The migration continues. The past few years have added a new lethal geography to the Afghan tragedy: the battlefields of President Bashar al-Assad’s Syria.

Two years ago, Abdol Amin, 19, left his home in the Foladi Valley in Bamyan, one of Afghanistan’s poorest provinces, to find work in Iran. Two million undocumented Afghans and a million Afghans with refugee status already lived in Iran. His sister and brother-in-law lived in Isfahan. He hoped to improve on his life of subsistence farming in impoverished Bamyan.

Two-thirds of the population in Bamyan Province lives on less than $25 a month. The intense poverty and the absence of opportunity forces thousands of young Afghans from Bamyan to travel illegally to Iran in search of work. Many, like Mr. Amin, end up fighting other’s people’s wars.

Mr. Amin managed to earn a meager wage, about $200 a month, working as a bricklayer in Isfahan. Last year, he used his modest savings and went to Iraq with a group of fellow Afghan refugees for a pilgrimage to Karbala, the city where Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was killed in the year A.D. 680.

Elated after his pilgrimage, Mr. Amin returned to Iran but couldn’t find any work for three months. As often happens with Afghan refugees in Iran, Mr. Amin was humiliated and discriminated against. He lived with the constant fear of being deported. “Iran isn’t our country. It belongs to strangers,” Mr. Amin said. “Either you suffer and try to make some money or you die.”

Last winter Iranian authorities presented Mr. Amin with an interesting proposition. He could gain legal status in Iran and be free of the fear of deportation. The Iranians offered him a 10-year residency permit and a monthly salary of $800 if he would go to Syria to “fight to protect” the shrine of Sayyida Zainab, a granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad.

Around 2013, when Mr. Assad’s military was losing ground to the rebels, Iran poured billions of dollars into Syria, brought in Hezbollah fighters and began raising Shiite militias from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places with significant Shiite populations. Iran does want to protect the major Shiite shrines in Damascus, Aleppo and Raqqa, but the use of foreign Shia militias in the Syria war was simply another fork in the larger battle for control and influence in the Middle East run by Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ elite Quds Force.

The relationship between Iran and Syria goes back to the Syrian support for Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, their shared enmity toward Israel, and Syria’s being the essential axis of transit between Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Most of the weapons in the Hezbollah inventory are sent by Iran through Syria. Mr. Assad’s control over Syria allows Tehran to resupply Hezbollah and work toward building a connection to the Mediterranean Sea.

A few months after Iran asked Hezbollah to join the fighting in Syria alongside Mr. Assad’s forces, it began raising other Shiite militias. Fatemiyoun Division (formerly Brigade), a militia of Shia Afghan refugees, was formed around early 2014 and trained by both the Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah veterans. Its strength has been estimated to be between 8,000 and 14,000 men. The Iranian authorities maintain the fighters are volunteers.

The recruits to the Fatemiyoun Division were initially from among the Shia Hazara Afghans, who settled in Iran after the Soviet occupation, after the civil war in the early 1990s and the subsequent Taliban rule. Their recruitment had echoes of how Pakistan — the other major host of the Afghan refugee population — recruited the Pashtun Sunni Afghan refugees and their children to form the Taliban in the mid-1990s.

In the past few years, Iranians have expanded the recruitment to undocumented Afghans, like Mr. Amin, recently arrived from Afghanistan in search of economic opportunity. Apart from the refugees’ economic anxiety and precarious legal status, the Iranians exploit the Shia faith of Afghan refugees to recruit them to fight for the Assad regime in Syria.

Iranian propaganda framed the Syrian war to these refugees as a Shia struggle for the defense and protection of the faith and its holy sites. “The fighters have little or no knowledge of the political-security context into which they are marching,” said Ahmad Shuja, a former researcher with Human Rights Watch. “They do not speak Arabic, most of them have never been beyond Afghanistan or Iran, many are barely literate, most are devout Shiites.”

Mr. Amin believed that the Syrian war dated back to a dispute between Jabhat al-Nusra (which was officially founded in 2012) and Mr. Assad. He had been made to believe that the war broke out after the leader of Nusra (who, he said, was related to Mr. Assad) wanted to build a store over a mosque. Mr. Assad, an Alawite, rushed to defend the mosque and protect all religious sites, especially the Shia shrines, in the country. In turn, in Mr. Amin’s telling, Nusra called for Mr. Assad’s downfall and the destruction of the country’s shrines.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah fighters trained Mr. Amin and various Afghan recruits of the Fatemiyoun Division in using weapons and tactical movement for a month. Some were trained as snipers; some were trained in tank warfare. After the training they were flown to Syria and sent to the front lines in Damascus and Aleppo.

Source » newyorktimes

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