Mission Accomplished? What’s Next for Iran’s Afghan Fighters in Syria
When Hussain Fedayee was killed in Aleppo in 2015, the 41-year-old Afghan had fought in three wars in as many countries. He got an early start as a teenager fighting against Saddam’s forces in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, then joining the anti-Taliban opposition in his home country in the 1990s. He went to Syria in 2013 as part of the initial batch of Afghans deployed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps to fight the Islamic State.
But between fighting in these conflicts, Fedayee lived the humble life of an Afghan immigrant laborer in Iran. He held various jobs, including the backbreaking work of producing granite slabs in one of Iran’s many factories.
Zulfiqar, as he was known by his nom du guerre, was a founding member and regimental commander of what became the all-Afghan Fatemiyoun Brigade. He was a lifelong Shia mercenary, helping the Iranian Revolutionary Guards send thousands of Afghan refugees and immigrants to fight in Syria, exploiting their vulnerable legal status and their devotion as Shia Muslims.
On Nov. 21, 2017, Iran declared victory against ISIL in Syria. Gen. Qassem Soleimani of the Quds Force — the arm of the Revolutionary Guards tasked with foreign military operations — sent a letter to Supreme Leader Khamenei delivering the news. Iran’s large-scale intervention in Syria has drawn tens of thousands of fighters from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Lebanon who formed the “Resistance Front” against ISIL. The Lebanese fighters were primarily under the Hezbollah umbrella, but the Afghan and Pakistani contingents fought under the Fatemiyoun and Zeinabiyoun brigades, respectively, which were established around 2013. The contingent of Afghan fighters alone is said to number between 10,000–20,000, some of whom are reportedly being trained in Russia.
Now that the Fatemiyoun and Zeinabiyoun have helped Iran attain “victory” against ISIL, the question is what Iran will do with these tens of thousands of battle-hardened fighters. Will it deploy them elsewhere in the Middle East? Initial indications are that Iran is actually downsizing the contingent of Afghan fighters, sending them back to Iran where their families — mostly refugees or undocumented immigrants — have been promised permanent residency. This gives the fighters’ families a secure future, but it also gives the leadership in Tehran the security of knowing that it can, if needed, draw again on these veteran fighters who are now indebted to the government.
In the days following the proclamation of victory, Iranian officials such as Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, head of the Revolutionary Guards, clarified that the military defeat of ISIL does not mean the organization has been destroyed. These clarifications are not just simple statements of fact; rather, they allow the Quds Force to justify its continued involvement in the region.
Iran has an interest in maintaining its land bridge to Beirut, which the regime believes offers a crucial connection to the Mediterranean. The land route starts from Iran’s border with Iraq and snakes through Syria to reach Lebanon, allowing Iran to more easily supply and equip its regional allies — Assad in Syria and Hizballah in Lebanon. Maintaining the land bridge will require securing the Iraq-Syria border, which was just cleared of ISIL, and guarding against non-ISIL outfits like al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham in Syria. This suggests a continued need for the Fatemiyoun, which has already been engaging in ground fighting with these outfits.
Makeup and Motivations of Fatemiyoun Fighters
The Fatemiyoun’s strategic command and management are in the hands of Iranians, while the fighters are Afghan refugees and immigrants recruited from Iran. The Iranian government uses coercion and incentives to exploit the Afghans’ vulnerable legal status in Iran. Threats of deportation are coupled with high salaries for fighters and permanent residency for their families.
The cash and residency incentives are designed to supplement the fighters’ religious motivation to defend the holy Shia shrines in Damascus from ISIL. Two of the holiest shrines in Shia faith are the Sayyeda Zeinab and the Sayyeda Ruqayya, revered religious figures from the family of Imam Ali, one of the four caliphs of Islam and the first Shia Imam.
The Fatemiyoun were part of most major battles in Syria, including the retaking of Palmyra, the battle to liberate Deir al-Zour and the offensive to retake Aleppo. They played an important role in helping supplement Assad’s beleaguered forces and preserving their numbers by taking the brunt of the fighting. In some of the toughest battles, Fatemiyoun fighters have been used as cannon fodder. The proxy operation by the Revolutionary Guards has resulted in human rights abuses, including the recruitment and death of child soldiers.
The Fatemiyoun After ISIL’s Military Defeat
The first signals about the group’s future direction came when the Fatemiyoun Brigade released a letter to Soleimani immediately after he proclaimed victory. The letter was written by the brigade’s cultural affairs wing, led by an Iranian cleric Hojjat Ganabadinejad. After expressing readiness to fight Israel, the statement declared:
After the complete cleansing of Syria from the presence of Takfiri terrorists and ensuring the complete security of the shrine of Zainab and Ruqayya, we hereby announce that, upon orders of Imam Khamenei and under the leadership of Your Excellency, we are ready to step in to support the downtrodden in any corner of the world from where the voice of the oppressed is heard.
This cleverly crafted passage alludes to the initial purpose of the Fatemiyoun’s formation, which was to defend the Shia shrines. It then announces complete submission to the will of the Supreme Leader and Soleimani to deploy them as they see fit.
Yet in the following days, Ganabadinejad declared on the brigade’s official telegram channel that the “military front against ISIL” was over and announced the beginning of a “cultural, ideological and social front.” He also hinted that Fatemiyoun fighters might start coming home.
This idea of the transition from guns to ideology was also echoed by Mahdi Alizadeh Mousavi, a cleric with ties to the Supreme Leader who has emerged as a leading establishment expert on Salafist and ISIL thought. As victory was declared, the regime-linked Sobh-e No Daily ran an interview with Mousavi with the front-page headline, “Now is the time for ideological war with ISIL”:
I hope that now that we have been able to defeat ISIL in Iraq and Syria, we can use the opportunity to enter the intellectual and ideological realm…the war has not ended; the military war has only changed to an ideological one.
Mousavi was speaking about Iran’s overall involvement in Syria, but his remarks are also consistent with official Fatemiyoun statements about the diminished role for active combat.
Signals From Fighters
In the months since Iran’s declaration of victory, there are indications that Fatemiyoun recruitment has stopped and some fighters are being returned to Iran. Members of the small community of Afghan Shias who live in Damascus tell me that about three months ago, the Fatemiyoun started to send certain types of fighters back: those who are too young or too old to fight effectively or who have disciplinary problems such as insubordination and getting into fights with fellow fighters. Although the fighters are not allowed to interact with the Afghan Shia community, its members can easily tell that the Fatemiyoun is being downsized. Typically, new fighters visit the shrine of Sayyeda Zainab when they first arrive in Damascus. At the end of their tour, they are recalled from the battlefield and allowed a farewell visit the shrine before their flight to Iran. There has been a significant increase in the goodbye visits while arrival tours have stopped, Afghans in Damascus told me.
Other sources corroborate this conclusion. A former Fatemiyoun fighter now living in Iran told me that recruitment has stopped. Another Afghan source, a former Fatemiyoun fighter who regularly speaks to Iranian media about the brigade, confirmed to me that there is “no plan” to recruit right now and that “all such activities are stopped.”
So What’s Next?
By announcing the defeat of ISIL and its threat to the shrines, the Quds Force seems to have taken away the religious motivator for recruitment, at least for now.
But Iran’s interests in Syria will continue to require some form of military engagement. The Quds Force and its proxy militias will continue to have a role because of the inability of Assad’s forces to secure the country on their own and the presence of multiple competing forces — including the Syrian Democratic Forces, al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham — that could threaten Iran’s land corridor to Lebanon.
There were also reports that the Fatemiyoun would be deployed to Yemen to support the Houthi rebels, though it now appears Iran is downsizing the Afghan outfit rather than expanding it for deployment to new battlefields. It is far from clear if Iran will disband the brigade entirely, however; it may perhaps opt to preserve it in some form. But Iran can easily expand the Fatemiyoun as needed since it can recruit from the millions of desperate and legally vulnerable Afghan refugees and immigrants living in Iran.
Moreover, thousands of veteran Fatemiyoun fighters and their families will supposedly get Iranian residency, becoming beholden to the government. Iran could transform these ex-fighters into a paramilitary unit that could be activated and deployed when and where needed. A model for this already exists in the mold of the Basij, the volunteer paramilitary unit of the Revolutionary Guards that is used for domestic security, law enforcement, and opposition suppression.
The Fatemiyoun may be going home from Syria, but they are not going away.
Ahmad Shuja Jamal is Fulbright scholar at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. He is a regular commentator on Afghanistan and regional issues and researches topics of international security and human rights.