Tehran has reportedly promised to grant permanent residency to Iran-recruited Afghan Shiite militiamen coerced into combating armed groups in Syria seeking to remove dictator Bashar al-Assad, including the Islamic State.
The move will allow the Islamic Republic to preserve a brigade of thousands of Afghan fighters who will be “beholden” to the government of U.S.-designated state-sponsor of terrorism Iran.
“Initial indications are that Iran is actually downsizing the contingent of Afghan fighters, sending them back to Iran where their families — mostly refugees or undocumented immigrants — have been promised permanent residency. This gives the fighters’ families a secure future, but it also gives the leadership in Tehran the security of knowing that it can, if needed, draw again on these veteran fighters who are now indebted to the government,” the War on the Rocks news outlet points out.
The Iranian government uses coercion and incentives to exploit the Afghans’ vulnerable legal status in Iran. Threats of deportation are coupled with high salaries for fighters and permanent residency for their families. The cash and residency incentives are designed to supplement the fighters’ religious motivation to defend the holy Shia shrines in Damascus from IS.
Throughout the ongoing Syrian conflict, news surfaced that Iran was forcing Afghan refugees and immigrants to fight on behalf of Assad in Syria.
In July 2017, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that Syrian opposition forces had killed a “disproportionally high” number —at least 656 — of Iranian-recruited Shi’ite from Afghanistan since the conflict in Syria began in 2011, noting that Tehran used the militiamen as “cannon fodder.”
War on the Rocks reports that the Afghan fighters expressed a willingness to “destroy” Syria’s neighbor Israel soon after Tehran declared victory over ISIS’s Syrian wing in November 2017. That month, an unnamed Western intelligence source told BBC Iran that Iran is establishing a permanent military presence inside Syria that will allow the Islamic Republic to operate close to Israel.
“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 Shi’ites and Sunnis,” an all-Afghan militia, known as the Fatemiyoun brigade, declared in a statement, according to the Middle East Institute (MEI).
War on the Rocks also acknowledges that news reports have suggested Iran may deploy the all-Afghan militia to support Tehran-allied Houthi rebels against the U.S.-backed Saudi Arabia coalition in Yemen.
“It is far from clear if Iran will disband the brigade entirely, however; it may perhaps opt to preserve it in some form,” notes War on the Rocks. “But Iran can easily expand the Fatemiyoun as needed since it can recruit from the millions of desperate and legally vulnerable Afghan refugees and immigrants living in Iran.”
Afghan fighters recruited by the Islamic Republic have indicated that they are at the disposal of Shi’ite Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“After the complete cleansing of Syria from the presence of Takfiri terrorists [ISIS] and ensuring the complete security of the [Shi’ite] shrine of Zainab and Ruqayya, we hereby announce that, upon orders of Imam Khamenei and under the leadership of Your Excellency, we are ready to step in to support the downtrodden in any corner of the world from where the voice of the oppressed is heard,” the all-Afghan Shi’ite added in the November 2017 statement, according to MEI.
The Shiite Afghan fighters who began fighting in Syria in 2013 on behalf of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) now number between 10,000 and 20,000, MEI noted late last year. Under U.S. President Donald Trump, the American government has designated the IRGC a terrorist organization.
“Iran’s large-scale intervention in Syria has drawn tens of thousands of fighters from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Lebanon who formed the ‘Resistance Front’ against ISIL,” notes War on the Rocks.