Are Afghans fighting in the war in Syria? There have been a few reports to that effect in the international news media over the past months, detailing recruitment efforts mainly by the Iranian government among Hazaras in order to bolster the Assad regime’s manpower. However, there has never been evidence of Afghan fighters actually present in Syria – until now. AAN guest author Christoph Reuter, Syria correspondent for the German political magazine Der Spiegel found proof of an Afghan Hazara and a group of Afghan companions fighting in the city of Aleppo on the side of the regime. About a week ago, the man was killed by Syrian rebels who found videos and photos on his body, proving the man’s origin and telling the story of his journey via Iran and Lebanon onto the Syrian battlefield.The 'ID' found on the body of an anonymous Afghan killed in Aleppo last year: a card with a number, a photo and a picture of the shrine of Sayeda Zainab near Damascus, obviously issued by Syrian authorities - but no name. Photo: Christoph Reuter
On 22 May, the Wall Street Journal published a report about Iranian efforts to recruit Shiite Afghans to fight for the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. It says that, according to Afghan and Western officials, Iran has been recruiting “thousands” of Afghan refugees to fight in Syria, offering 500 dollars a month and Iranian residency to help the Assad regime beat back rebel forces. According to these reports, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) recruits and trains Shiite militias to fight in Syria. This France24 article also mentions photos published of funeral processions for “Afghan Shia “martyrs” in different cities across Iran: from Qom, to Mashhad, and Isfahan, the men are buried in ceremonies that are reportedly attended by local Revolutionary Guards Corps commanders.” (1)
German journalist Willi Germund talked to young Hazara volunteers in Kabul who stated their readiness to follow the “recruitment campaign of Iranian diplomats in Kabul who work secretly to convince young Shiite men with a mixture of religious promotion and financial rewards to join the fighting in Syria.” This would fit with the overall picture of the regime of Bashar al-Assad mobilising military support from Shiite communities in the region. Well supplied with weapons, ammunition and even spare parts for the air force from Russia and Iran, the limiting factor throttling the military capabilities of the regime forces until 2013 was the lack of fighters.
In its armed forces, the regime mainly relies on fighters from the Alawite minority, a largely branch of the Shia to which the ruling family belongs and which is considered loyal by the regime. Members of the 70 per cent Sunni majority, on the other hand, have often not shown up for military service or have defected. In addition, young men from the other minorities – particularly Druze and Kurds – have not gone into open rebellion against the regime in exchange for not being conscripted into the military service; this is often arranged as part of an agreement between the regime and community leaders. Therefore, the Alawite have suffered a particularly high number of casualties; educated guesses point in the direction of more than 10,000, maybe 20,000 to 30,000. Many people from villages and towns in Alawite areas have told this author that they have lost hundreds of young men fighting all over Syria.
To bolster its manpower, the Assad regime thus ‘invited’ fighters from abroad. In addition to the well-trained Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon who entered Syria as early as the spring of 2012, Iranians have joined the battle, mainly as trainers, as well as Iraqis from the notorious Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, which is recruiting all over Iraq and is known for having committed massacres against civilians in the area of Qalamun northwest of Damascus in early 2014. Even 160 to 200 Yemeni fighters were temporarily brought to Syria in 2013. All these fighters have in common the fact that they are Shiites, who come – officially – to protect holy Shiite shrines in Syria, like that of Sayeda Zainab south of Damascus where a large mosque complex has grown up around the supposed burial site of prophet Mohammed’s granddaughter Zainab. In early 2013, in the suburbs of Damascus as well as later in Aleppo, the communication experts from rebel groups listening into the radio traffic of regime forces, have increasingly picked up on Iraqi dialects as well as Farsi.
It thus seems probable that Shiite Afghans are also approached for recruitment to fight in Syria. The Wall Street Journal report offered details of the recruitment policy, but gave no evidence of Afghan fighters actually present in Syria. There is also no information on the overall number of Afghan fighters in Syria from any side nor any official announcements about their presence from the government in Damascus. According to sources within the Syrian regime, its intention is to keep the presence of Afghan fighters a secret. This might be because the impression is increasingly gaining ground that the Syrian army is depending on foreign forces and would loose the war without their help. In contrast, there are statements about foreign fighters from Hezbollah (see for example here) and support from the Iranian leadership (see for example here and here).
There have been, however, approximately 2,000 mostly Hazara Afghan refugees living illegally (that is, without Syrian papers) in Syria since the fighting broke out in 2011, many of them stranded on their way to Turkey and Europe, most of them living in or around the capital Damascus and some seeking shelter near the Zainab shrine. According to Afghan author Ahmad Shuja, who cited from a letter received from Afghan refugees in Syria, the latter “were evicted from the area by force … in July  when violence spread to the Syeda Zainab area around Damascus”. Since then, the Afghan refugees in Syria have been living “in makeshift shelters facing dire conditions.” The sender of the letter also mentioned “arrests” by Syrian authorities of Afghan refugees “in the way between Damascus and Aleppo toward of Turkey [sic]” (see also here). On an Afghan blog, there were reports of Afghan refugees being forced out of their accommodation by armed groups demanding the payment of ‘taxes’, and also reports of abductions and rape. In 2013, the foreign ministry in Kabul confirmed that refugees had been killed as a result of the fighting, but apparently not as participants in it. None of the researchers who had heard the rumours about Iranian recruitment among impoverished Hazaras in Kabul and Iran ever found confirmation that Afghans had indeed arrived in Syria as fighters.
Scenes, filmed in the mountains of northern Syria in late spring
This has now changed. In the last week of May, Syrian rebels from the Abu Amara battalion killed a young man they believed was Afghan in the area of Ramouseh in western Aleppo, far from any Shiite shrines. Having been in constant contact with civilian activists and rebel groups all over northern Syria for the past three years, the author and his local contacts were informed of the circumstances of the death of the young man by that rebel group. The man carried no documents except an ID with his picture but no name, a nine-digit registration number and a picture of the shrine of Sayeda Zainab, obviously issued by the Syrian authorities. A mobile phone and two additional memory cards with plenty of video footage as well as pictures he had taken were also found on the body. Shortly after, on 27 May, members of the rebel group that killed the anonymous young Afghan posted a compilation of the videos they found on YouTube.
The young man himself appears in some of the scenes that had obviously been filmed in the mountains of northern Syria in late spring. From his accent – Hazaragi Dari – the man can clearly be identified as Hazara, an ethnic group that exclusively lives in Afghanistan or as refugees abroad. Other men he is talking to in the clips speak with the same accent. According to his mobile phone photos, on his journey to the battlefield, he had first obviously spent some time in Iran and then taken a commercial flight to Beirut in Lebanon, entering Syria from there. In Damascus, the young Afghan, together with other young men who were to become ‘foreign fighters’, participated in a ceremony at the Sayeda Zainab shrine before heading north to the frontline. There, as he says in the video, his group of 28 men participated in a battle in which they lost five comrades – “the operation failed”, he says. In other videos, he is seen with tanks, artillery and machine guns belonging to the Syrian army.
According to the footage found by the Syrian rebels, he was offered some rather worldly incentives before his fatal trip: days at the beach close to Lattakiya, a port city in northwestern Syria, and in the green mountains of the Alawite heartland in its hinterland, chatting and joking with his Afghan friends. After the leisure part, he was obviously transferred to the embattled city of Aleppo, where he died in the fighting.
According to the leader of the Abu Amara battalion, Mouhana Jafaleh, the young Hazara “was part of a group of a dozen fighters. We had spotted them through their radio communication, which was in some kind of Farsi, as far as we could understand. This guy had a sniper rifle with him. Probably they were all a group of snipers”. It does not become clear from the material, however, where and by whom he had been recruited.
(1) It is not the first time Afghans have been ‘recruited’ for Iran’s wars. In the 1980s, according to AAN’s Kate Clark, some Afghans ended up fighting for Iran against Iraq. One former mujahedin commander described to her going to Iran to get weapons to fight the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. As ‘payment’, he first had to do some fighting against Iraq. He was deployed to the savagely contested Faw Peninsular, scene of some of the worst fighting of the Iran-Iraq war, and to Kurdistan.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020