An official of the Fatemiyoun Division has revealed that at least 2,000 Afghan Shiites have been killed and 8,000 more injured in the Syrian conflict – more than twice the number previously reported. The Fatemiyoun Division is a predominantly Afghan militia unit that has been fighting under the leadership of Iran’s elite Quds Force in Syria to prop up the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad. Last week, the Iranian media quoted Zahir Mujahid, the director of cultural affairs of the Afghan unit, as saying that the Afghan combatants have rendered enormous “sacrifices” but the Iranian government has not paid sufficient attention to their needs. In an earlier interview with IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency, Zahir had said that the Afghan fighters also face discrimination inside Iran. He said the militiamen also face criticism in Afghanistan about their involvement in a foreign conflict. Iran’s Martyrs Foundation said last year that it only provides assistance to about 200 family members of Fatemiyoun fighters killed in Syria.
Comment: Over the past six years, Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) has recruited, indoctrinated, trained and deployed thousands of Afghan Shiites to fight under its command against Sunni rebel groups across Syria. The Fatemiyoun Division has about 20,000 active fighters according to accounts provided by Iranian officials.
Iranian officials had previously provided far smaller number of Afghan casualties in Syria. This may partly be because the Iranian government wants to downplay the involvement of Iranian fighters and its foreign militia forces in Syria. Any survey of Iranian open sources may also not provide an accurate number of the casualties because Fatemiyoun fighters are used as cannon fodders in the most dangerous conflict regions and their bodies are not always recovered and returned to Iran.
The Fatemiyoun was founded by leaders of two Afghan Shiite militant groups: Sepah-e Muhammad (Muhammad Army), an Iran-backed group that operated against the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and the Abuzar Brigade, which fought alongside Iranian military forces against Iraq in the 1980s. According to Iranian military sources, more than 2,000 Afghans perished during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. The founder of Fatemiyoun, Alireza Tavasoli, was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war and was a close confidante of Suleimani; when Tavasoli was killed in Syria, Soleimani visited his family to pay tribute.
Interviews with Fatemiyoun militants with the Afghan media demonstrate that the I.R.G.C. recruits destitute and undocumented Afghan refugees by offering them permanent residency, financial aid, and other incentives for their families. Others say they joined Iran’s war in Syria to escape prison sentences. Of some 2.5 million Afghans living in Iran, a third are registered as refugees while the remainder are mostly illegal economic migrants.
However, not all Afghan Shiites fight in Syria for money or legal status. Many also go to Syria for ideological, religious and political reasons.
While the conflict in Syria is winding down, recent statements by Fatemiyoun and IRGC leaders indicate that Iran will not disband the Fatemiyoun after the Syrian war is over and will instead use the militia force to fight Iran’s asymmetrical wars in other battlefield. On March 1, the deputy commander of the Quds Force, Ismail Ghaani, said Fatemiyoun fighters “do not recognize borders to defend Islamic values” and to “foil the plot of the Global Arrogance [U.S.] and bloodthirsty Zionism [Israel].” He also stressed that Fatemiyoun’s mission is not confined to Syria. Afghan officials allege that Iran has dispatched a number of Fatemiyoun to fight in Yemen and express the worry that the I.R.G.C. may also use Afghan Shiite fighters for proxy wars in Afghanistan once the Syrian conflict is over.
In recent years, Fatemiyoun fighters have also established close operational links with the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militia groups such as Harakat al-Nujaba.
In a statement by the group released in November, Fatemiyoun commanders and fighters congratulated Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Iranian Quds Force Commander Major General Qassem Soleimani on the fall of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and emphasized that they will continue to fight alongside the “axis of resistance” to annihilate Israel.
The Afghan militia group also sent a veiled threat to the United States. “We believe that although the existence of murderous Daesh [ISIS] in Iraq and Syria has come to an end, but Daesh’s masters in Tel Aviv and Washington will not remain idle and will continue to inflame violence, hatred and tragedy in the broader Islamic community, among both Shiites and Sunnis,” the statement added. “Here, we declare that after completely cleansing the Syrian territory from Takfiri terrorists and establishing full security Hazrat Zainab shrine and Sayyidah Ruqayya Mosque, we are ready to help the oppressed anywhere in the world under the leadership of beloved Imam Khamenei.”
By Ahmad Majidyar | Fellow and Director of IranObserved Project – The Middle East Institute