Ezzatollah Zarghami, the former head of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, has emphasized the significance of Afghan Shiite militias for the Iranian military intervention in Syria. Zarghami, who once served as a commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.), wrote in his Instagram page that Qassem Soleimani, the head of I.R.G.C’s secretive Quds Force, has a high level of confidence in the Afghan militias, which are fighting in support of Iran’s ally Bashar al-Assad in Syria. “I asked General Soleimani about the security and protection of one of important spiritual-political centers. He said that other than the young men of Fatemiyoun, no one else can defend it,” Zarghami described his conversation with the Quds Force commander. He also posted the photograph of an Afghan militia commander, who, he claimed, was “martyred” fighting "terrorist groups" supported by the U.S. and British governments in Syria.
Comment: The Fatemiyoun Division consists of thousands of Afghan Shiites recruited by the I.R.G.C. from the Afghan refugees and migrant workers living in Iran as well as Shiite Hazaras from inside Afghanistan. A senior Iranian official revealed earlier this year that 18,000 Afghan Shiites were now fighting in Syria, and Afghan militants played an instrumental role in the seizure of the Syrian city of Aleppo in December. Last year, Soleimani acknowledged that the Afghans’ participation in the Syrian conflict had been very “impactful,” and that it had also elevated the status of the Afghan refugees inside Iran. “Today, praise be to God, Afghans are looked at with a different view, different respect. Graves of Afghanistani [Afghan] martyrs are treated like the graves of imamzadeha [sons or grandsons of 12 Shiite imams],” the Quds commander explained.
According to the Iranian media, 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. The Fatemiyoun’s sister organization, the Zainabyoun Brigade, is much smaller in size and is comprised of hundreds of Pakistani Shiites.
Although the Iranian government deny forcing Afghan refugees to fight in Syria, the Afghan media and international human rights organizations have reported that the Iranian authorities recruit Afghan Shiites to fight in Syria in exchange for Iranian citizenship and financial rewards. Last year, Iran’s parliament passed a legislation granting the government permission to issue citizenship to non-Iranians fighting on Iran’s side – which drew angry reactions in Afghanistan
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.