Iran accused of coercing vulnerable Afghans to fight for Assad in Syria

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( – Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is reportedly coercing undocumented Afghans living in Iran to fight in support of Syria’s Assad regime, using a combination of financial incentives and coercive tactics including threat of deportation or imprisonment.

Tehran, whose IRGC forces and Lebanese Hezbollah proxy are fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has dismissed the allegations as “fabricated.”

The claims appear in a report by Human Rights Watch, based on interviews with Afghans who have fled the region, and in separate report by the exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran/ Mujaheddin-e Khalq (NCRI/MEK), citing information from “scores” of sources inside the IRGC and its external operations wing, the Qods Force.

According to the NCRI report the Afghan Shi’ites, whose numbers grew threefold in 2015 to about 7,000, are viewed as “dispensable” and invariably deployed in the most dangerous combat zones.

“As such, they are used extensively, particularly in the more dangerous fronts or where there is a need to break into enemy lines where the casualty rate is high,” it said.

NCRI claims that the Afghan deployment comes at a time of “growing social discontent in Iran over the regime’s meddling in Syria,” and concerns of a backlash due to rising numbers of IRGC casualties in the civil war. The IRGC’s own numbers fighting in Syria reportedly increased around threefold last year.

The Afghans are organized in an Afghan-only force known as the Fatemiyoun division, falling under Qods Force command.

NCRI says up to one million Afghans in Iran are undocumented and unemployed.

“They live not only under the poverty line, but under the ‘survival’ line. In such circumstances, the regime has established a large organization under QF [Qods Force] supervision to recruit and dispatch Afghans to Syria.”

NCRI says recruitment is conducted by IRGC personnel and members of the Basij state militia in areas where large numbers of Afghans live.

Destitute Afghans are promised wages for signing up to fight, and Afghans imprisoned for lacking documentation or for other reasons are offered a way out of their predicament.

“They are coerced into joining the force and registered to be dispatched to Syria.”

After basic training at Qods Force training camps, they are flown to Damascus in groups by the IRGC-owned Mahan airline. On arrival they are taken to visit two prominent Shi’ite shrines before being dispatched to various fronts, NCRI’s sources report.

The opposition group says the main battlefronts for the Fatemiyoun division have been in southern Aleppo – where many Afghans lost their lives during the beginning of a major assault on rebels by the regime and its allies last fall – north of Dara’a, the Palmyra region, Hama and Homs.

Fatemiyoun officers are paid the equivalent of $1,000 a month, most of which is paid directly to their families in Iran, while lower ranks are paid about $600, says the report, which also details names of Fatemiyoun commanders and senior officers, and location of bases in Syria and in Iran.

In the event of an Afghan being killed or wounded, there is no financial payout to them or their families. Injured fighters must cover their own costs.

“From this point on, the regime just deserts them, and no government institution provides them any support,” the report said. “Most of them are unable to pay for their basic needs or even rent a room to live in.”

NCRI says the situation has caused growing discontent among the Afghans.

‘If we refused to advance, they would shoot all of us’

Human Rights Watch says it interviewed Afghans fleeing into southern Europe late last year, and found that the IRGC had recruited “thousands of undocumented Afghans” in Iran to fight in Syria since late 2013.

“Some [of those interviewed] said they or their relatives had been coerced to fight in Syria and either had later fled and reached Greece, or had been deported to Afghanistan for refusing.”

“Iran has not just offered Afghan refugees and migrants incentives to fight in Syria, but several said they were threatened with deportation back to Afghanistan unless they did,” said Peter Bouckaert, HRW’s emergencies director. “Faced with this bleak choice, some of these Afghan men and boys fled Iran for Europe.”

Six of the men interviewed had fought in Syria in Iranian-commanded militias – two said they signed up voluntarily while the other four said they or relatives had been coerced to do so.

One 17 year-old, Masheed Ahmadzai, related a battle near the Homs’ oil refinery, when Syrian forces were afraid of advancing Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters and ordered the Afghans to take the lead

“There were almost no Syrians with us. They said that if we refused to advance, they would shoot all of us, saying we could not retreat. If people still refused, the [IRGC] commander would shoot them in the leg,” Ahmadzai told HRW. “He shot two people in my group that way.”

Ahmadzai said after a three-month tour of duty he was flown back to Tehran and ordered to return for another tour after 15 days’ leave. Instead he fled to Turkey and made his way to Greece, he said.

An Iranian foreign ministry official told the ISNA news agency that the claims were “fabricated,” and that there was evidence Afghans were fighting on both sides in the Syrian civil war.

“However, no one can speak with certainty about the circumstances of their presence on both sides of the Syrian front because the Daesh [ISIS] terrorist group and other terrorist groups have recruited forces from different countries including Afghanistan in support of their allies in Syria and Iraq,” the official was quoted as saying.

He said Afghans fighting there had either been living in Syria previously, or had traveled there from Afghanistan, via Iran.

— Written by Patrick Goodenough