Iran steps up recruitment of Shiite mercenaries for Syrian war

Iran opened a recruiting center in Herat, Afghanistan, last fall and has persuaded – and sometimes coerced – thousands of Afghans to fight in Syria.

On March 27, 2015, Ayatollah Khamenei met families of Afghan martyrs killed in Syria, and told them: "I am proud of you." Iran has been stepping up efforts to recruit Shiites from Afghanistan.

With gelled hair spiked high and wearing a Dolce & Gabbana shirt, the young Afghan man looks more like a fashionista than a religious warrior ready to give his life for jihad in Syria.

The man wanted to leave Afghanistan for personal reasons, but the Afghans and Iranians who facilitated his trip to Iran, and hosted him in Tehran, saw a recruiting opportunity. For two and a half months, an Iranian recruiter visited nearly every day to convince him to fight on the Syrian frontline with an all-Afghan unit in exchange for promises of a better life. 

As he felt the pressure grow, he finally acquiesced. 

“We will send you to Syria; when you come back we will give you an Iranian passport, a house, and money,” the 21-year-old Afghan was promised when he got to Tehran. He was told he would be fighting a "religious war" in Syria. 

His is one of many stories heard here in Herat, an ancient and largely Shiite city in northwest Afghanistan, that gives rare insight into how far the Islamic Republic is going to deploy a largely Shiite mercenary force of Afghans in Syria alongside its own troops, Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, and Shiites whom Iran has marshaled from Iraq and Pakistan.

Their presence has helped bolster Iran’s ally, President Bashar al-Assad, and – backed up by eight months of Russian airstrikes – enabled him to defy international predictions of his regime’s certain demise.

Iran’s use of Afghan fighters to bolster pro-government ranks in the Syrian war is no longer a secret, and is increasingly publicized inside Iran. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, met in March with families of Afghans killed in Syria, praised their sacrifice, and said: “I am proud of you.”

Some Afghans fight willingly for religious reasons, eager to take up a cause of “defending” Shiite shrines in Syria. Others fight for cash, upwards of $700 per month, or choose to realize promises of Iranian citizenship, schooling for their children, and jobs, if they survive the frontline – benefits usually beyond reach for Afghan migrants in Iran.

Still other Afghans report coercion and intimidation, and say their second-class status inside Iran – among an estimated 3 million Afghans, only one-third are legal migrants – is taken advantage of. Afghans' "vulnerable legal position in Iran and the fear of deportation may contribute to their decision [to join militias in Syria], making it less than voluntary," Human Rights Watch said in a January report. 

‘You will die a martyr’

The young man from Herat says he was not threatened. But he asked not to be named, and exudes fear as he recounts the failed recruitment by Iranians that he says believed in their cause, and were clearly tasked with the job.

“I thought, ‘If I do not accept, they will kidnap me and kill me.’ It was very dangerous,” recalls the would-be recruit. “In front of them I accepted everything, I said, ‘I am ready to leave for Syria and take part in the war.’ But I thought to myself, ‘What should I do? How to escape?’”

Shaking with anxiety and sweating at first, he tells how his plan to leave Afghanistan was diverted by Iranian recruiters; about how he felt compelled to agree to join the war; about how he lied to flee Iran to escape that commitment; and about why – now months later, and back in Afghanistan – he fears retribution and covers his face in public to avoid being recognized.

While in Tehran, he came up with an excuse of visiting an aunt in northern Iran before his deployment to Syria – and never came back. He claims that a fellow Afghan in Herat with official ties, who helped the young man make the trip to Tehran, was an “agent of Iran” whose job is to “collect young people” for the war in Syria.

Iran's public praise of Afghan brigade

Iran has created an entire unit of Afghans in Syria – known as the Fatemioun Brigade, named after the Prophet Mohammed's daughter, Fatima, and estimated to number several thousand. They have also created a religious narrative of defending Shiite shrines to encourage and justify their presence on the battlefield.

For years, Iran denied their existence, or any role in their creation. Yet beyond Mr. Khamenei’s recent praise, the public profile of Afghan fighters in Syria has grown in Iranian media coverage since last year.

The hard-line Kayhan newspaper describes how Fatemioun recruits spend 25 to 35 days at a "special training base" inside Iran before being dispatched to Syria, and there are frequent, increasingly advertised burials of Afghan “martyrs,” especially in Iran’s northeast shrine city of Mashhad. 

Video footage and interviews of Afghans captured by Syrian rebels in Western media depict hapless Afghans serving as cannon fodder, lost wide-eyed in a foreign war and not speaking Arabic, though some Iranian media reports describe specific victories made possible by Afghan warriors. 

Iran’s parliament voted last month to provide citizenship to families of foreign martyrs who have died on its behalf from the 1980s onwards – a rule that would apply to Afghans fighting in Syria.

Some Afghans in Herat allege that Iran’s “infiltration” has grown in part because of local recruiting efforts, from a low three years ago when Iran appeared to be making little strategic headway winning hearts and minds, despite providing extensive charity aid, from cash for newlyweds and student care packages, to cut-price electricity.

Remarkably, Iran’s volunteer Basij militia – a force of ideological devotees that operates under the Revolutionary Guard – publicized the opening of a new “headquarters” in Herat on its Basij News website last September. The photographs, since taken down, did not give away the location, perhaps to indicate a degree of caution about their operations in a neighboring country, but they show a ribbon-cutting ceremony and several uniformed Iranian officers with a handful of Afghans, most of them teenagers.

A son fighting for cash

Rokhiya, an Afghan mother with a sad face and wearing very conservative hijab and long robes, is not sure Iran’s promise of benefits will ever reach her, even though her son Rasoul ended up in Syria and died there.

“I am proud of this, that my son became a martyr for religious reasons, that he participated in this war for God,” says Rokhiya, a staunchly Shiite and desperately poor mother, speaking upstairs in a Herat restaurant and escorted by a male relative. “He knew he was fighting a religious war.”

But how Rasoul got there was a mystery to this mother. Her son had been married for a year, then left for Iran to find work. That was seven years ago. In Rasoul’s last construction job, the Iranian boss told the 20 Afghans working there that they would not be paid unless they did a war-zone tour in Syria. She claimed the man was from "Revolutionary Guard intelligence," a common, catch-all target of blame used by Afghans whenever they perceive Iranian influence.

“He put Rasoul under pressure, ‘Don’t tell anything to your mother; no one should know,’” recalls Rokhiya, recounting the story she learned from cousins inside Iran.

The first she knew he was in Syria came when he called home. Rasoul said he was “in a very bad position” but “had no choice, there was so much pressure.”

The next and last time Rasoul called, he spoke to his mother for eight minutes. He told her to borrow money; he would soon be able to pay her back. He promised to return to Iran, and would bring her there.

“They will pay for a home and we will live well, have financial support and citizenship,” Rasoul told her of Iranian promises. Relatives knew of fellow Shiite Afghans who fought in Syria, and had been rewarded.

“We are in war and are fighting. I have a gun, that is my work here. I don’t have any other way to make money,” Rasoul told his mother, adding that his faith would protect him. She says of that final conversation: “He was really unhappy and really afraid. It was his first time in war.”

Weeks later, a cousin in Iran phoned with news: “Pray for your son, he has died,” Rokhiya was told. The body never came home; any benefits remain undelivered so far.

A rare Sunni recruit

Another surprise Afghan fighter was Yousef, a rare Sunni and ethnic Pashtun recruited by Iran to fight from his job site west of Tehran, according to his cousin Hassan, who wears a bushy beard and embroidered skull cap.

Hassan and Yousef worked often in Iran, and last year their group of Afghan construction workers was often visited by an Iranian recruiter. Once the Iranian had a private conversation with Yousef, who then told his cousin he wanted to work “far away” and would be gone for two months – without mentioning the Syrian war.

There is open recruiting in Iran for Shiite Afghans, the Hazaras, and Iranian government benefits were for them, says Hassan. But finding Sunni Pashtuns willing to fight is far less common.

“Pashtuns don’t participate, but they go one-by-one like my cousin, for the money,” says Hassan. “Most who leave Afghanistan are workers, so if the pay is higher in the war, they do it.”

Word filtered through from Hazara friends at the Syrian front that Yousef was with them, and was killed. “He did not tell us he wanted to go to Syria,” says Hassan. “He never came back.”

That does not surprise the spike-haired, name-branded Afghan who made it to Tehran, refused to go to Syria, and now hides his identity in Herat, which he calls a “big recruiting center” for Iran’s war in Syria.

“They are collecting young people in Herat, and say, ‘Let’s go sightseeing in Iran,’” says the Afghan fashionista. Does he belief the Iranian promises of benefits?

“If people go to Syria, they will never come back, so for whom do they issue these things?” he asks. 

Please follow Scott Peterson on Twitter at @peterson__scott

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