With a look at the escalating number of casualties suffered by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) in Syria, one can come to this conclusion that most definitely this volume of fatalities and injuries will lead to dissent amongst the IRGC lower ranks and general file. Even senior military and political officials in Iran have voiced their protests regarding the high number of casualties. To this end the IRGC has for some time now launched a new initiative. Although such a measure is nothing new and the IRGC has always resorted using foreign nationals, prisoners, the poor and deprived people to send them off to the battlefronts and filling the void in its forces. The IRGC has recruited Afghan mercenaries to be deployed to Syria.
Nearly 2.5 million Afghans have sought refuge in Iran from the 1980s to this day. Most of these Afghans fled to Iran as their country was invaded and occupied by the Soviet Union from the early 1980s, their country being engulfed in a deadly civil war and the Taliban taking over their country. Generations became permanently stationed in Iran and many have been born there. However, none of these Afghans enjoy fundamental and civil rights any human being deserves. Iran has deliberately maintained this minority group in a limbo to be able to take advantage of this displaced population when it best sees fit.
Iran and IRGC’s intense need to maintain their battle lines in Syria reached its climax in 2012. Back then it became crystal clear for the IRGC that Assad is unable to protect his territory and the IRGC was forced to dispatch a large number of forces to Syria, including Afghan foreigners. The selection and recruiting method of these Afghan forces, mostly very young and inexperienced, was very simple for the IRGC: financial pledges and legal concessions for residency in Iran rallied a large number of mercenaries for the IRGC.
Khorasan Province (in northeast Iran) bordering Afghanistan is the main center to recruit and hire Afghans for the war in Syria. The city of Mashhad, the capital of Khorasan Razavi Province, is the main epicenter of this effort. Mosques and various more public centers in neighborhoods where Afghans reside are promising them residency in Iran and a monthly salary of 75 million ($2,500) rials for a 2-3 month tour to have volunteers sign up to fight in Syria. Many of these young Afghans are already in a limbo, poor and unemployed, and they easily fall into the traps prepared by the IRGC.
The IRGC command at times resorts to using unknown middlemen operatives to recruit these forces. From late 2015 the training base for Afghan recruits was transferred to Saleh Abad in the city of Torbat Jam and Taybad (northeastern Iran). The 1st brigade of the 5th Nasr Division in Khorasan is missioned to provide the training needed for these Afghan recruits, carrying out these measures under the pretext of “border protection training” for the country’s eastern area. A segment of this training is provided in the Gharchak region of the town of Varamin, southeast of Tehran.
The IRGC first provides financial benefits, purchases a car and home, and provides residency to the Afghans. The next step is placing pressure on Afghans arrested at the border to fight in Syria in return for their release and financial benefits.
On the other hand, the IRGC dispatches Afghan recruits, dubbed as ‘Fatemiouns’, to the most dangerous areas of Syria, using them as ground forces and cannon fodders. Many of them have received inadequate military training and suddenly find themselves dispatched to a very harsh and blood war. Nearly 10,000 Afghan mercenaries are fighting for the IRGC in Syria, according to the latest evaluation. Many of them have been killed and injured, and grieving ceremonies are seen in the streets of large cities in Iran, including Mashhad.
According to remarks made by Afghans returning alive from Syria or fled Iran, the regime in Tehran is paying its IRGC operatives $150 to recruit forces for the war in Syria.
The roots of Afghans’ presence in Syria is found in the discrimination and crackdown they suffer under the Iranian regime. Afghan nationals, displaced in Iran due to poverty and other hardships, are not even permitted to have a SIM card in their own name. They are barred from using economic centers and banks in Iran, parallel to numerous social restrictions. Therefore, when they face the option of leaving Iran or returning to Afghanistan, they literally find themselves having to decide between bad and worse. Some even agree to fight in Syria for a mere $500 a month.
They are hired as mercenaries even in border police and security stations where Afghan nationals are arrested. Many of these Afghans are fighting in many different cities in Syria where the IRGC has a foothold, including Aleppo and Tadmir, where many of the Afghans are used as ground troops. In many cases when these mercenaries are arrested and become POWs the IRGC refuses to accept them back in order to deny any involvement and use of any such mercenaries in Syria.
It is worth noting that the Iranian regime’s own foreign ministry denies any use of Afghan recruits in the war in Syria. However, the cities of Mashhad and other cities, covered with posters of Afghan nationals killed in Syria, depict a completely different story.