by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College and a reporter for War Is Boring. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.
Growing desperate for manpower, the Syrian government depends on foreign militias as well as local ones. Iran has arranged for Iraqi, Lebanese, and Yemeni volunteers to fight the Syrian opposition on the Syrian government’s behalf, deploying them across cities and supply chains that the failed state might struggle to defend by itself. Experienced from their own civil wars, these foreign fighters often outperform the Syrian Arab Army and its allied militiamen, yet, because of sectarian violence in their own countries, the Iraqis and Yemenis often need the return home. The Iraqis have proven the most obvious example, preferring to fight the terror organization “Islamic State” (IS, ISIL, or ISIS) in their own cities, towns, and villages instead of Syria. Iran has recruited Shias from Afghanistan and Pakistan to stem the shortfall of Arab volunteers.In fact, Iran recruits Afghans and Pakistanis from not only their countries but also Iranian territory, where many live as immigrants and refugees. Unlike the Iraqi, Lebanese, and Yemeni volunteers, who have their own revolutionary movements, the Afghan and Pakistani fighters often join Iranian-led offensives as auxiliaries through the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Looking at the casualties, according to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “Iran’s Shiite coalition incurred at least 1,530 combat fatalities in Syria between January 19, 2012, and March 8, 2016”. The casualties include 878 Hezbollah fighters, 342 Iranian nationals, 255 Afghans, and 55 Pakistanis. The apparent absence of non-Lebanese Arab casualties from Iraq and Yemen (at least in the Washington Institute’s analysis) points to the growing importance of the Afghan and Pakistani militias in Iran’s arsenal. Furthermore, the Afghans and Pakistanis, unlike the Lebanese, directly depend on Iran to arm, organize, and train them.
The Afghans and Pakistanis interest Iran because they widen its authority and power through Shia hegemony in the Greater Middle East. “The Afghan Hazara Shiite community was a logical target for Iranian recruitment in Syria’s war,” observed the Washington Institute. “Tehran has a track record of exploiting Shiite populations that it can directly influence due to its geostrategic, religious, and historical position. Given the long-term population of Afghans in Iran, Tehran may view the war as an opportunity to extend its influence over disparate Shiite elements and push its leadership agenda. Furthermore, the use of ethnically diverse fighters can be used to demonstrate wide Shiite support for the Iranian-organized armed defense of Assad, with the presumed goal of legitimizing Tehran’s approach.” The world’s only Shia theocracy has tried to expand its sphere of influence through cultural imperialism, focusing on Shia communities in countries prone to conflict. Iran leads the Resistance and Deterrence Axis, an anti-Israeli coalition of paramilitaries and states, and the Shia Crescent, a geopolitical region encompassing the Shias of Bahrain, the Emirates, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. The Axis of Resistance and the Shia Crescent overlap, allowing Iran the cultural and religious influence that it desires. In addition, Iran recruiting from Persian-speaking refugees on its own territory is far more practical than summoning distant Arab militias and also relieves some of the strain that the Afghan migrants might put on Iran’s resources and economy.
Because neither the Afghans nor Pakistanis speak Arabic and they lack the prowess of the Iraqi, Lebanese, and Yemeni militias, they represent a notable downgrade for the Syrian government’s power projection. Even so, the number of Afghans and Pakistanis may render this difficult irrelevant, and they meet the Syrian government’s immediate needs. The Army distrusts many of its Sunni soldiers, preferring Alawis or the foreign Shias. According to al-Jazeera, the Afghans supporting the IRGC number twenty thousand, critical to a military weakened by soldiers defecting and dying. “Though the number of Pakistanis fighting in Syria under the Hezbollah flag is impossible to gauge accurately, one thing is clear: it is rising,” wrote The National Interest. “The Pakistanis were originally integrated with other units and now serve in their own distinct unit.” The Guardian commented that the Afghans now outnumber all other foreign fighters backing the Syrian government except the Lebanese, represented by Hezbollah, which has an interest in protecting the Lebanese–Syrian border. The bizarre relationship between a desperate, declining government and thousands of Shia fighters from South Asia will add to the complexity of the Syrian Civil War and may hinder the Syrian government’s effectiveness and efficiency. If nothing else, these foreign combatants from a religious minority will ensure an increase in violent sectarianism.
Though the Afghans and Pakistanis serve to offset the gradual disappearance of non-Lebanese volunteers from the Syrian battlefield, recent events have shown that these foreign fighters too present a unique challenge. Whereas the Iraqis and Yemenis left Syria for home, many of the Afghans are departing the war-zone for Europe alongside thousands of Sunni Syrian refugees. The British Broadcasting Corporation interviewed several Afghans who had fought in the Syrian Civil War as the migrants traversed Europe. The interviewees claimed that Iran had often deceived or pressured them and, once they reached Syria, forced them into combat. Here, the Afghans and Pakistani’s lack of experience again becomes an obvious weakness. Most of the Iraqis, Lebanese, and Yemenis have travelled to Syria to support the Iranian cause. The Afghans and Pakistanis, however, seek better opportunities. When Iran fails to deliver these opportunities, they look further westward, joining many other South Asians arriving as refugees in Europe.
Observers should then consider the Afghans and the Pakistanis a short-term, problematic solution to the withdrawal of battle-hardened Arab militias. Since last, the Iraqi militias, which have made serious progress against the Islamic State in their own country, seem to be returning to Syria, implying that even Iran prefers them to the Afghans. Whatever the size of these Afghan and Pakistani brigades, then, their importance on the battlefield will likely decline with the return of combatants from Iraq to Syria.
“Human Rights Watch in late 2015 interviewed more than two dozen Afghans who had lived in Iran about recruitment by Iranian officials of Afghans to fight in Syria. Some 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 hosts an estimated 3 million Afghans, many of whom have fled persecution and repeated bouts of armed conflict in Afghanistan. Only 950,000 have formal legal status in Iran as refugees. The Iranian government has excluded the remainder from accessing asylum procedures, leaving many who may want to seek asylum undocumented or dependent on temporary visas. […] While Iranian law allows conscription by the Iranian military, it is limited to Iranian nationals. The conscription of anyone else, including Afghan nationals, by the [IRGC] falls outside the conscription allowed by Iranian law, and is thus arbitrary.” (“Iran Sending Thousands of Afghans to Fight in Syria: Refugees, Migrants Report Deportation Threats“, Human Rights Watch, 29.01.2016).