By Tom Coghlan, Aimal Yaqubi and Sara Elizabeth Williams
Iran is offering thousands of dollars to Shia mercenaries from Afghanistan and Pakistan to join the fight to keep President Assad of Syria in power.
According to Shia community leaders in Kabul, the recruitment drive is co-ordinated by the Iranian embassy in the Afghan capital. It provides visas to “hundreds” of Shia men each month willing to fight in Syria. Online Urdu- language recruitment is also taking place in Pakistan, with fighters offered $3,000 each to join up.
Some analysts believe that as many as 5,000 Afghans and Pakistanis are now fighting for the Assad regime, bolstering government troops whose morale has been battered by a series of reverses since the start of the year. They have lost territory, in the process, to increasingly well-organised rebel units backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Iran is the main provider of arms, fighters and finance to the Assad regime.
The recruiters in Afghanistan are focusing on the Hazara community, a Shia minority who have long faced persecution. “Unemployment is the main motive, besides religious motives,” said one Shia leader in Kabul.
There are about two million Afghans living illegally in Iran — and some of the new recruits are believed to have been press-ganged; threatened with deportation if they refuse to fight.
Syrian rebel commanders report that they are capturing or killing increasing numbers of Afghan and Pakistani fighters. Some, captured in southern Syria two weeks ago, said that they were part of a unit of 600 Afghans.
The first confirmed funerals of the newcomers killed in Syria were reported by Iranian newspapers in late 2014. Since then Syrian rebels believe there has been a huge increase in their involvement. “In the last four months we have seen 80 per cent foreign militias and only 20 per cent Syrian army,” said Major Isam al-Rayyis, a spokesman for the southern rebels.
During an offensive last month north of Daraa, rebel commanders said that a majority of their opponents were Afghan. “We captured nine Afghans and we saw a lot of dead bodies, we recognised their faces. They said they were paid $5,000 to go and fight. They came from Tehran. They said they were told either they come and fight or they will be sent back to Afghanistan. They had no real training. They were just sent to die.”
Video footage posted online by Syrian rebels in Idlib province showed four prisoners with the distinctive features of Shia Hazaras from Afghanistan. One teenager, speaking Dari, an Afghan language, said that he had volunteered to defend the Shia shrine to Sayyida Zainab in Damascus, dedicated to the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad and a key monument for Shias. “We want Bashar al-Assad to exchange us,” he said to the camera. “Please, please exchange us.”
A video broadcast by Turkish media last week, apparently taken from a phone captured by Syrian rebels in Aleppo, showed fighters in Syrian government uniforms listening to Afghan music and speaking Pashto, the main language of Afghanistan. The men also engaged in Pashtun dancing common to southern Afghanistan.
In Kabul, Hazara sources identified Shia madrassas and community centres, and the Iranian-funded Khatam un Nabiyeen university, as places of active recruitment. There was also recruitment in Bamiyan, central Afghanistan, and in Herat city, close to the Iranian border, the sources said.
The Iranian government has quietly moved to offer incentives to Afghan Shia willing to join the fight. An Iranian television station, Ofogh TV, which is linked to the Revolutionary Guard, broadcast a programme which showed Afghan fighters in Syria. It praised Alireza Tavassol, an Afghan-born commander of the Fatemiyoun brigade, which it said was made up of volunteers from Afghanistan. He was reported to have been killed earlier this year in southern Syria.
The liberal Iranian newspaper Shargh reported that the Iranian parliament was considering amending legislation to give rights of citizenship to foreigners willing to fight in Syria.
Analysts have warned that expanding the involvement of religious fighters from across the regions carried dangers. “This speaks to Iran’s inventive personnel policies,” said Toby Dodge, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics. “More depressingly, given the longstanding issues of sectarianism in the region, the greater west Asian sectarian crisis is linking up, with Iranian encouragement.”
Phillip Smyth, a researcher at University of Maryland who has studied the Iranian-backed militias, said the recruitment in Afghanistan and Pakistan sent a message to Iran’s regional enemy, Saudi Arabia. “This doesn’t spell anything good. There is nothing positive from foreign fighters coming back and [being] reintroduced into a highly sectarian region. Now these guys have training with combat experience. It opens so many fissures. It’s really bad.”