Iran has been forcing Afghan refugees to fight for the beleaguered regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Der Spiegel reported Monday.
In order to prevent the collapse of Syrian government forces, experienced units from the Lebanese militia Hezbollah began fighting for Assad as early as 2012. Later, they were joined by Iranians, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Yemenis — Shiites from all over, on whom the regime is increasingly dependent. But the longer the war continues without victory, the more difficult it has become for Assad’s allies to justify the growing body count. In 2013, for example, Hezbollah lost 130 fighters as it captured the city of Qusair and has lost many more than that trying to hold on to it. Indeed, Hezbollah has begun writing “traffic accident” as the cause of death on death certificates of its fighters who fall in Syria.
The Iraqis have almost all returned home. Rather than fighting themselves, they largely control the operations from the background. The Iraqi militia Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, for example, organizes the deployment of Pakistani volunteers in Syria. But no ethnic group is represented on all of the regime’s fronts to the degree that the Afghan Hazara are. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but some 700 of them are thought to have lost their lives in Aleppo and Daraa alone. What’s worse, most of them don’t come completely of their own free will.
Up to 2 million Hazara live in Iran, most of them as illegal immigrants. It is an inexhaustible reservoir of the desperate, from which the Pasdars — as Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are called — have recruited thousands for the war in Syria over the last year and a half.
The Spiegel report focuses on Murad Ali Hamidi, a farmer in Afghanistan who had fled to Iran. He found work until he was arrested for selling drugs, a charge he denies. After a year in the notorious Evin Prison, he was offered the chance to have his sentence commuted in exchange for two months of service in Syria and about $1400 in pay. Another Afghan imprisoned with Murad told a similar story. He was offered freedom and the possibility of a residency permit in Iran in exchange for military service in Syria.
Der Spiegel reported that the government of Afghanistan doesn’t acknowledge the plight of Afghans caught in such circumstances. A Syrian officer who was asked about Afghan prisoners when negotiating prisoner exchanges told rebels, “Do what you want with them. You can kill them, they’re just mercenaries. We can send you thousands of them.”
While the Assad regime has suffered significant setbacks in recent weeks, Iran is committed to keeping control of Syria. But Iran’s growing control over Syria has reportedly stirred resentment in the army; a top security official of the regime was reportedly arrested Monday for plotting a coup.
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