Iran’s Afghan Shiite Fighters in Syria
On May 22, the Wall Street Journal reported that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was recruiting Afghan Shiite refugees to fight in Syria, promising them a salary of $500 per month as well as Iranian residency papers. The article noted that reports of funerals for such fighters began to emerge in November 2013, and that they had originally been recruited to offset losses among IRGC operatives in Syria. Yet the phenomenon of Afghan Shiite combatants fighting on Bashar al-Assad’s side is hardly a new development, and their increased involvement in the war merits closer scrutiny given the potential implications for Syria and the future of Iran’s regional and sectarian ambitions.
A second contingent of Afghan Shiite fighters hails from Iran; according to Iranian government-backed newspapers and Afghan Shiite sources, they are the largest such contingent. Many of these recruits were originally refugees in Iran, which is home to around half a million Hazaras; a 2010 Stimson Center report noted that a third of these refugees “have spent more than half their life in Iran.” Public funerals held in the Islamic Republic in November-December 2013 indicate that Afghan Shiite fighters came from cities throughout the country, including Isfahan, Mashhad, Tehran, and Qom. One young “martyr,” Reza Ismail, had attended Iran’s University of Mashhad, and a photo reportedly taken in Syria showed him holding an M4-type carbine. Apparently, he was beheaded by Sunni jihadist rebels.
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