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How Iran Recruited Afghan Refugees to Fight in Syria | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Afghan immigrants working at a brick kiln in Pakdasht, Iran. Millions of undocumented Afghans live in Iran. Credit Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency, via Getty Images

BAMIAN, Afghanistan — War and poverty have scattered Afghans across the globe like pieces of shrapnel. Millions of Afghans came of age in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran or as workers in the Persian Gulf nations. The migration continues. The past few years have added a new lethal geography to the Afghan diaspora: the battlefields of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

Two years ago, Abdol Amin, 19, left his home in the Foladi Valley in Bamian, one of Afghanistan’s poorest provinces, to find work in Iran. Two million undocumented Afghans and a million Afghans with refugee status already lived in Iran. His sister and brother-in-law lived in Isfahan. He hoped to improve on his life of subsistence farming in impoverished Bamian.

Two-thirds of the population in Bamian Province lives on less than $25 a month. The intense poverty and the absence of opportunity forces thousands of young Afghans from Bamian to travel illegally to Iran in search of work. Many, like Amin, end up fighting other’s people’s wars.

Amin managed to earn a meager wage, about $200 a month, as a bricklayer in Isfahan. Last year, he used his modest savings and went to Iraq with a group of fellow Afghan refugees. He returned to Iran but couldn’t find any work for three months. As often happens with Afghan refugees in Iran, Amin was humiliated and discriminated against. He lived with the constant fear of being deported. “Iran isn’t our country.Either you suffer and try to make some money or you die.”

Last winter Iranian authorities presented Amin with a proposition. He could gain legal status in Iran and be free of the fear of deportation. The Iranians offered him a 10-year residency permit and $800 a month if he would go to Syria to “fight to protect” the shrine of Sayyida Zainab.

Around 2013, when Assad’s regime was losing ground to the rebels, Iran poured billions of dollars into Syria, brought in Hezbollah and began raising Shi’ite militias from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places with significant Shiite populations.

The relationship between Iran and Syria goes back to the Syrian support for Iran during the Iran-Iraq war.

Syria is the essential axis of transit between Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Most of the weapons in the Hezbollah inventory are sent by Iran through Syria. Assad’s control over Syria allows Tehran to resupply Hezbollah and work toward building a connection to the Mediterranean Sea.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah trained Amin and the Afghan recruits of the Fatemiyoun Division in using weapons and tactical movement for a month. Some were trained as snipers; some were trained in tank warfare. After the training they were flown to Syria and sent to the front lines in Damascus and Aleppo.

The New York Times