KABUL – Mohammad Ali Maradli was a 45-year-old Afghan man who spent six years of his life in Iranian prisons on drug smuggling charges. He was released by the authorities in Tehran on the condition that he would go to Syria and join the militias fighting alongside the Syrian army. “He agreed to the offer in exchange for a salary of $600 a month,” Maradli’s family told Alaraby Aljadeed.
“A few days after I receive training in Tehran, the Iranians will send me and a number of Afghan and Pakistani fighters to confront members of the Free Syrian Army who have demolished the tombs of Sayyeda Zeinab and Sayyeda Ruqayya, and the shrine of Hujr ibn Adi,” he told his family as he bid them farewell before leaving.
Maradli’s story ended in Damascus where he was arrested by FSA forces. Many other Afghan fighters also met their ends in Syria, either being killed or taken prisoner, like Murtada Hussein, who was captured by rebel battalions in Homs.
Afghans serving Assad
“After their arrival in Syria, Afghan combatants fought, at first, with Iraq’s Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigade until Iran formed a special unit for them called Liwa Fatemiyoun. They also fought in a new branch of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, called Hezbollah Afghanistan,” an Afghan journalist who has worked in Syria told Alaraby Aljadeed.
Syed Hamed Iqtidar confirmed that thousands of Afghans are fighting in the ranks of both the regime and the opposition. Iqtidar clarified that although some Shiite Afghans fight for salaries, most come to Syria to defend their sect after undergoing indoctrination in Iran.
The Afghans fighting alongside the regime in Syria can be divided in to a number of categories, the most important of which is made up of Afghans who lived in Syria before the war and ran large commercial enterprises. “Most of them belong to the Shiite Hazara ethnicity that is found in central Afghanistan, in Bamyan Province to be exact. They left during the Taliban’s reign. Thousands of them sought refuge in Syria, fearing that they would be subject to violence,” Iqtidar said.
Afghan refugees in Iran are the group Tehran has had most success recruiting in large numbers to fight alongside the Syrian army. Despite the Iranian authorities’ denial that they are behind the recruiting of Afghans, Shiite Afghan sources confirmed to Alaraby Aljadeed that a number of Afghan religious scholars residing in Iran — including the religious scholar Muhaqqiq Kabuli who lives in the Iranian city of Qom — have conspired with Tehran authorities to recruit Afghan refugees.
This is proven in Kabuli’s case by a past statement from his press office, which confirmed that Afghan refugees were being recruited to defend holy sites. However, the scholar stopped making such statements after being put under official pressure. The sources also revealed that Tehran is encouraging Afghan university and schools students in Iran to fight in Syria. Teachers and religious scholars tell stories of militants bombing Shiite holy sites to motivate Afghan students from the cities of Tehran, Mashhad and Zahedan to go and fight in Syria. This matches up with the story of Rida Ismaili, a student from Mashhad University who was killed by the FSA last year in Aleppo.
Inmates in Iranian prisons, especially those sentenced to death or internment for long periods, are a golden opportunity for Iran. The story of Mohammad Ali Maradli mentioned at the start of this report serves as a good example.
“Iran takes advantage of poor Afghan refugees’ neediness. It entices them with salaries that reach $500 and grants them permanent residence if they go to Syria,” confirmed a Shiite sheikh of Hazara ethnicity who preferred to remain unnamed.
The Afghan sheikh revealed to Alaraby Aljadeed that a young relative of his had left Iran with his family and returned to the Afghan province of Herat, which lies on Iran’s eastern border. An Afghan Shiite religious scholar had asked him to go to Syria and threatened him with deportation if he refused.
Propaganda on social media
Alaraby Aljadeed has observed Iranian propaganda targeting Afghans in European states — especially young men — via social media. Many Persian language pages call on young men to come to Syria and defend holy sites. The Syrian Liwa Fatemiyoun publishes images of Afghan fighters complete with rousing Persian language music aimed at young men of Hazara ethnicity who speak the Hazaragi Persian dialect.
Hazara sheikh Ali al-Mehdi explained to Alaraby Aljadeed that although the salaries paid by the Iranians ($500) are not enough to make people sacrifice themselves, the influence of certain religious scholars is strong. This, he said, is what motivates young Shiites to contact Iranian recruiters via social media websites and arrange travel to Syria.
Another community leader of Hazara ethnicity — who preferred not to reveal his identity — denied the suggestion that young Shiites are traveling from inside Afghanistan to fight alongside the Syrian regime. However, he did confirm the participation of Afghan refugees from Iran, saying that he “knows many of them.”
“Iran sends us dead men every day after they are executed for one excuse or another,” he added sarcastically.
“How could we possibly travel to Syria to fight for Iran?”
Huge benefits for Iran
Security analyst Obaidullah Wazir told Alaraby Aljadeed he believes Iran stands to benefit most from the recruitment of Afghans. Wazir pointed out that Afghan fighters reduce losses for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, as well as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which he said has formed a special subsidiary brigade made up of Afghans called Hezbollah Afghanistan. He also said he expects Iran to use fighters trained in Syria to enforce its policies in Afghanistan in the future.
Wazir added that sending Afghan refugees to Syria does not require a great deal of effort on Iran’s part. This, he explained, is due to their living conditions, which are already bad, and the fact that they do not require weapons training as they are already accustomed to war.
Adverse effects for Afghanistan
Wazir predicted “dangerous negative effects for Afghanistan and the entire region” in the future, saying that as “most of Afghan society is Sunni, [it] opposes the participation of Afghans in fighting in Syria alongside the Assad regime. Therefore, there is a [danger] that Afghan participation in activities against Iran will increase in the region, especially as reports have confirmed the presence of Islamic State (ISIS) sympathizers inside Afghanistan. There is also a [danger] that a sectarian war could be ignited inside Afghanistan in the future if Iran decides to transfer Afghan fighters in Syria to Afghanistan, as some of them support Iranian policies while others do not. These Afghans will also be influenced by Afghan Shiite marājiʿ who reside in Iran.”
The security analyst concluded that “the recruitment of Afghans, in addition to the loss of Afghan lives, damages the image of Afghans in the world, and will therefore lead to increased tension in Afghan-Iranian relations.”
Iran’s response to the accusations
Iran denies the accusations made against it by Afghanistan of recruiting its citizens and sending them to Syria. The Iranian embassy in Kabul has released a statement to that effect, which also stresses Iran’s condemnation of foreign intervention in Syria. In the statement — a copy of which was acquired by Alaraby Aljadeed — the embassy said that Iran recently arrested a number of Afghans from Iran who wanted to travel to Iraq to join ISIS.
Mohammad Ali Maradli’s family denied the story. “Everyone knows very well that it is Iran who recruits Afghans,” the family said. “This is proved by [the activities] of Afghan religious scholars in Qom and other Iranian cities who encourage young people from their country to defend holy sites. Meanwhile, Iranian military officials are constantly participating in the funerals of Afghans killed in Syria, and buried in various Iranian cities.”
Not long ago Maradli’s family heard a rumor that he had been buried secretly inside Iran along with five other Afghans who, like him, were killed in Syria. Although they were all buried in the city of Qom at the beginning of this month, according to the rumor, the family prefers to consider their son missing at present.
Afghanistan’s official stance on the recruitment and transfer to Syria of its citizens by Iran is expressed by Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesperson Siraj al-Haqq Siraj, who confirmed to Alaraby Aljadeed that there are Afghans fighting with both the Syrian regime and the opposition.
“The Afghan government has tasked its embassy in Jordan with running an investigation into the subject,” the diplomat told Alaraby Aljadeed.
He added that Kabul has “threatened to refer the case to the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees if evidence is found proving Iran’s involvement in recruiting Iranian refugees and sending them to Syria.”
Some observers have said that Afghanistan’s current status may not allow the country to lodge a complaint with the UNHCR. However, legal expert Dr. Khaled Ahmad Khatim told Alaraby Aljadeed he believes the UNHCR could discuss the case with Iran without Afghanistan’s intervention. Iran is a signatory to the UNHCR’s 1951 refugee convention, which stipulates that host states may not politically exploit the situation of refugees, and stresses that their lives must be protected. This means that by sending Afghan refugees to fight in Syria Iran is in breach of international law.
**This is a translation of an article written in Arabic by Sibghatullah Saber which originally appeared in Alaraby Aljadeed.