The Iranian government continues stands accused of sending members of its Afghan minority to Syria as part of the country’s military operations. As a result, the United States has announced a wave of new sanctions targeting businesses which provide financial support to these paramilitary structures.
In what was described as part of the economic campaign against Iran’s “malign” influence in the Middle East, the US Treasury specifically targeted 20 corporations and institutions connected to the funding of the Basij Resistance Force, the volunteer paramilitary wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The Basij Resistance Force has been accused of recruiting child soldiers for the war in Syria.
“This vast network provides financial infrastructure to the Basij's efforts to recruit, train, and indoctrinate child soldiers who are coerced into combat under the IRGC's direction,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said.
According to the Human Rights Watch, the Basij frequently targets children of Afghan migrants in Iran, with some reports claiming the recruitment of 14 year old teenage boys.
Up to 2 million undocumented Afghans are said to live in Iran, in addition to another 1 million Afghans with refugee status, although this is currently subject to change as some Afghans leave Iran due to the prevailing economic crisis.
Mostly coming from undocumented families, these young soldiers are often recruited under the threat of deportation to Afghanistan. Others join voluntarily due to the promise of gaining residence status in Iran. However, there is little doubt that the problematic legal status of the recruits is an important motivation in their decision. Similarly, owing to the economic hardship in Iran, many join the Basij with the promise of a stable wage of 800 dollars a month.
It is believed that up to four thousand Afghans are assigned to the Liwa Fatemiyoun, an Afghan Shia brigade, which is part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps forces in Syria.
Described as a war in defence of the Shia faith and its holy sites, the IRGC utilises the devotion of many soldiers to its advantage. The religious dimension of propaganda used by the Iranian government is exemplified by the public military-style funerals held for the Liwa Fatemiyoun, which are frequently attended by Iranian officials. In this sense, the Iranian government combines the fear of deportation with the promise of gaining residence and a respected position to entice the Afghans.
In fact Iran’s involvement in Syria is much more than defending a few holy places. Iran entered the war to save Bashar al-Assad’s regime in an all-out effort.
As a result, the lives of the Liwa Fatemiyoun fighters are often strategically misused. Planned by the Quds Force, Iran’s extra-territorial special forces, the Liwa Fatemiyoun are often deployed with little regard to potential casualties. While only Iranian nationals can be conscripted by the Iranian armed forces, the Liwa Fatemiyoun continue to be used as first-wave infantry who are sent to the most difficult battles.
According to one of the members of the Liwa Fatemiyoun known as Hamid Ali, who was interviewed by the Human Rights Watch, the Quds Force makes the decisions about the deployment of Afghan soldiers. One deployment on the Iraqi border involved a unit of 400 Afghan soldiers, which was given little support. “They did not give us heavy artillery or anything other than our AK-47s.” 200 soldiers were killed within days from their deployment.
The Iranian government claims that these brigades are formed on a purely voluntary basis. However, while some Afghans may indeed be motivated by their faith and the regime’s description of the conflict as a war to defend Shia holy sites, many seek to escape the ranks of the Fatemiyoun by seeking refuge in Europe. Indeed, the BBC has reported cases of ex-Fatemiyoun Afghan refugees in Lesbos and other refugee centres who still hold to their dog tags as evidence of their often coerced service.
Nevertheless, knowing that the Iranian involvement in the Syrian civil war is set to continue, there is little doubt that the deployment of child soldiers and other members of the Afghan minority will also continue.