If you thought Syria’s war was already a mess, here’s a development that’s not going to make it any less ugly.
Neighbors Iran and Afghanistan got into a bit of a diplomatic spat earlier this month over allegations that Iran’s revolutionary guard — the IRGC — was recruiting Afghan refugees there to go fight alongside Bashar al Assad’s forces in Syria.
Reports that Iran had been recruiting fighters among the nearly four million Afghans living in the country — offering them a path to legal residency and $500 a month to go fight with the Syrian government — sparked the condemnation of some Afghan politicians, who accused Iran of exploiting the poverty and precariousness of its large refugee population.
'If they make it back alive then things will be better for them in Iran.'
Iran denied the claims — with a spokesman for the country’s foreign ministry calling them “completely unfounded,” but outrage over recent reports of Afghan deaths in Syria prompted the Afghan government to demand an investigation.
“This is a really sad event. Afghanistan’s government has to find a solution,” Fazel Hadi Mosleymyar, the parliament speaker, said on May 18, according to the Wall Street Journal, which has been covering the alleged recruitment. “They take advantage of the refugees’ poverty and send them to Syria to die.”
This video from 2012, which VICE News cannot independently verify, claims to show an Afghan refugee captured by rebel forces in Syria. Speaking some Arabic — not one of Afghanistan's languages — the man says he is Afghan. The man filming him says he is Shia.
The Wall Street Journal confirmed rumors about the recruitment with several Afghans in Iran — including a religious leader there who said Tehran also offered Afghans willing to fight in Syria school registration for their children and charity cards.
'The recruitment of impoverished, often undocumented Afghans, is especially exploitative.'
Both Afghanistan and Iran’s media have been reporting on the exodus of Afghan refugees to Syria for several months — and Iranian authorities did not always seem to deny their involvement.
“They were not hiding earlier on, Iranian officials have talked about it, they have said that these Afghans are going there to secure these Shia shrines, though they have not admitted that they are actively recruiting them,” Ahmad Majidyar, a security analyst focusing on Pakistan and Afghanistan, told VICE News. “When the bodies were brought back to Iran, the Iranian government held a ceremony for their burial, and some IRGC officials and some from Iran’s Foundation of Martyrs, which looks after Iranian martyrs, also participated — which shows that basically the Iranian government is paying the families of the victims.”
The video below, re-uploaded from Iran's English-language press TV claims 100 Afghan "mercenaries" were killed by rebels in Aleppo, in September 2012. The second video, shared by activists, claims to show Afghan, Iranian, and Iraqi "soldiers" fighting against rebels. VICE News cannot independently verify the claims made in these videos.
Afghans fled to neighboring Iran during more than three decades of conflict, some escaping war, and others looking for economic opportunities. Most Afghans in Iran — including those reportedly recruited to fight in Syria — are Shia members belonging to the Hazara ethnic group. Shias — like members of Hezbollah and most Iranians — normally support the regime of Assad, who belongs to the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
'Iran has formed a second Hezbollah in Syria'
Iran has made no secret of its political, financial and strategic support for the government of Assad, with authorities saying that they have trained 50,000 pro-regime Syrian militiamen and with one IRGC commander even boasting that 130,000 Iranian reservists are being prepared to fight in Syria.
Most members of Syria's many rebel groups are Sunni, supported by countries like Saudi Arabia, and often affiliated to radical Sunni groups like al Qaeda.
“Iran has formed a second Hezbollah in Syria,” Brig. Gen. Hossein Hamedani, said earlier this month, according to the Christian Science Monitor. The Lebanese Hezbollah has also openly supported the Assad regime — including by sending thousands of men to fight there.
"Nothing happens in Syria without Iran's hand," another Iranian official said, according to the Wall Street Journal.
But while some Iranians have also reportedly slipped into the conflict next-door, the recruitment of impoverished, often undocumented Afghans, is especially exploitative, critics said. Up to 800 Afghans attempt to cross into Iran every day, according to Afghanistan's refugee ministry — but most of them never register as refugees — leaving them precarious and vulnerable.
'In return for permanent residency and financial inducements they accept the job and go fight in Syria.'
“Afghans go there for two reasons: one, they are usually very young, teenagers, they are indoctrinated by the Iranian clergy and revolutionary guard that this is a fight against Shias and that it’s their religious obligation to go to Damascus and protect those shrines,” Majidyar said. “But two, they are very poor, migrant workers in Iran, they don’t have visas, they cannot work properly, so in return for permanent residency and financial inducements they accept the job and go fight in Syria.”
“If they make it back alive then things will be better for them in Iran, but many of them die there,” he added. “This population is very much vulnerable. The Iranians do not see the Syrian war as their war, or their responsibility to go there and fight. The Afghan population is vulnerable and easier to recruit.”
But those fighting for Assad are not the only Afghans in Syria.
'This conflict is so complicated, nobody can tell anything.'
In addition to the Shias allegedly recruited by Iran, Afghan Sunnis from a number of radical groups have also reportedly flocked to the country, to join rebel forces there.
Like many reports coming out of Syria, those are not easy to confirm, though witness accounts and videos shared by rebels and activists claim to show Afghan jihadis fighting alongside Chechens, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, and dozens of other nationalities.
The videos below, whose authenticity and claims VICE News cannot independently verify, claim to show Afghans and other foreigners fighting along Syria's rebels.
“This conflict is so complicated, nobody can tell anything, I can just tell you what I saw with my own eyes. I saw all these people wearing this kind of dress that’s not familiar in Syria, we call it ‘Afghan’ style, but to be precise I cannot confirm that they are Afghan or from elsewhere in Central Asia,” Ahmad Beetar, a Syrian independent blogger who documented the conflict from Syria before fleeing in August 2013, told VICE News.“They are much more radical. The Syrians, even the radical ones, are more moderate than the foreigners."
For a country like Afghanistan — where both sectarianism and conflict are all too familiar — the potential of Afghans facing off in a foreign war is not good news.
'The Syrian war has already engulfed the Middle East, but now the danger is that that sectarian war is coming to South Asia.'
“Sectarianism in Afghanistan has been a growing concern for a while," Raffaello Pantucci, a researcher with Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies (RUSI), told VICE News. "I don't know what they would get in Syria that they weren’t already getting at home."
“There’s a danger: Iran is recruiting Shias, and before sending them to Syria they of course indoctrinate them, and when they go to Syria they become more sectarian against Sunnis. And at the same time you see Afghans in Pakistan, from radical groups, that are also going to Syria — and when they come back they will be more hardline and more sectarian,” Majidyar said. “The Syrian war has already engulfed the Middle East, it has expanded into Lebanon and Iraq, but now the danger is that that sectarian war is coming to South Asia.”
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi