The Iranian media reports that ten members of the Iran-backed Fatemiyoun Division and Zainabyoun Brigade killed in Syria were buried in the holy Iranian city of Qom on November 10.

The Fatemiyoun Division consists of thousands of Afghan Shiites, predominantly those living in Iran. According to Tasnim, a news agency close to the IRGC, the Fatemiyoun was founded by leaders of two Afghan Shiite militant groups: Sepah-e Muhammad (Muhammad Army), which fought against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1990s, and the Abuzar Brigade, which fought alongside Iran against Iraq in the 1980s. The Zainabyoun Brigade is largely comprised of Pakistani Shiites from Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province and Parachinar tribal area as well as Pakistanis living inside Iran.

Since 2013, the IRGC has recruited thousands of Afghan and Pakistani Shiites to fight in Syria to defend Shiite shrines and support the embattled government of President Bashar al-Assad.

While the Iranian government denies allegations that it coerces Afghans to fight in the Middle East, it makes no secret that Afghan refugees fight alongside the IRGC across Syria. Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani, the head of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force, was spotted among Fatemiyoun militants in Syria earlier this year. Moreover, Iranian media often publishes photos from funeral ceremonies of Afghans “martyred” in Syria, and senior Iranian officials sometimes attend these events. On November 1, for example, a large number of students from Tehran University attended the funeral of Mostafa Karimi, a young Afghan student of the university killed in Syria. Karimi was later buried in Qom. Three days later, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei sent a personal message of condolence to Karimi’s family.

The Afghan media has in the past claimed that the IRGC recruit destitute and undocumented Afghan refugees by offering them permanent residency in Iran and financial inducements. Of about 2.5 million Afghans living in Iran, a third are registered refugees and the rest are economic migrants.

The IRGC’s use of Afghan Shiites as a proxy has not only contributed to growing sectarian war in Syria, but it has also alarmed many in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many Afghan and Pakistani Shiites and Sunnis fight on the opposite sides in Syria and Yemen. “It is likely that Sunni and Shiite Afghans fighting in Syria and Yemen return someday and their sectarian grudges get them to fight each other at home,” warns Afghan daily Hasht-e Sobh.


The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.