In south Tehran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s mausoleum is located near Iran’s largest cemetery, Behest-e Zahra (a.k.a. “Zahra’s Paradise”). Named after a female Shi’a saint, Behesht-e Zahra is vast in size and has been filled with the graves of many who died in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Yet today, there are sections hosting “shrine defenders,” a term used in Iranian political circles to refer to those who were “martyred” in Syria fighting to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s government. Among these Shi’a “martyrs” are slain Afghan men, primarily from the Hazara ethnic community, who fought in the Syrian civil war within the ranks of the Fatemiyoun Division.

With the Syrian civil war winding down in Assad’s favor, Fatemiyoun forces might be deployed to Afghanistan and put to similar use, that is, to confront the US military—particularly if a war between Washington and Tehran breaks out—and blunt the growing clout of the Islamic State near Iran’s borders. 

The Hazara Predicament in Iran 

With its seeds sown during the Iran-Iraq and Soviet-Afghanistan wars in the 1980s, the Fatemiyoun militia unit was established in the early phases of the Syrian civil war in 2012-2013 and has since served the Islamic Republic’s interests in Syria. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) along with Lebanese Hezbollah have led the Fatemiyoun Division in its fight against anti-Assad militants in various parts of Syria. Some sources have put its members between 10,000-20,000 Afghan fighters, while other estimates point to as high as 50,000 in its ranks. Around 2,000 Fatemiyoun militia members are believed to have been killed and at least another 8,000 injured during the Syrian civil war. 

The fallen “shrine defenders” from the Fatemiyoun Division have received posthumous recognition and respect in Tehran’s Behest-e Zahra and “holy shrines” that decorate the capital city’s suburbs. Yet underneath the symbolism and efforts to portray the Islamic Republic as highly respectful of these Shi’a “martyrs,” there is a darker story to tell. Put simply, the Afghan refugees in Iran who have fought as members of the Fatemiyoun Division in Syria have been victims of much exploitation both as cannon fodder in some of the Syrian conflict’s most gruesome battles and as a marginalized community of refugees in Iran. 

The lack of outrage over their plight underscores how they are overlooked by any influential segments of Iran’s government or society. Most Hazara Afghans in Iran are illegal migrants with no more than a relatively small percentage of them officially registered as refugees. These Shi’a Afghan migrants and refugees constantly live in fear of deportation to Afghanistan and usually go to great pains to maintain a low profile in Iran. One Hazara who had lived in Iran before his purported relocation to Europe told an activist the following about the Iranian government’s treatment of them: 

“The Iranians had told us that they would smash us if we opened our mouths. And so they did. They hit us hard with the fist of deportation, the expulsion from the school or university. With the fist of poverty and prison. That is why nobody opened his mouth.” 

Iranian authorities have used promises of citizenship, good pay, and offers of clemency for Hazara inmates in Iranian prisons to lure Afghan men into the Fatemiyoun Division.

Within this context, Iranian authorities have used promises of citizenship, good pay, and offers of clemency for Hazara inmates in Iranian prisons to lure Afghan men into the Fatemiyoun Division. “Joining the Syrian jihad was increasingly promoted as a path to legal and social recognition within the Islamic Republic at a time when thousands of desperate young Hazaras were setting out to emigrate to Europe,” wrote Tobias Schneider.

The Hazara fighters deployed to Syria by the IRGC were not the first wave of Hazaras to mark a presence near Syria’s Shi’a holy sites, however. In the 1990s, a community of Hazara fled Afghanistan because of threats posed by violent Sunni extremists and moved to Syria to live near the Sayyeda Zeinab Shrine. Part of the IRGC’s narrative is that the Fatemiyoun Division fighters voluntarily entered the militia group’s ranks due to their commitment to protecting those Hazara near Shi’a holy sites in Syria such as the Sayyeda Zeinab Shrine near Damascus from the Islamic State and other extremist forces. To date, Iran’s government has not recruited Hazara who were residents of Syria prior to 2011 to join the Shi’a militia. 

A gathering of the persecuted Hazara Shiite community who comprise about a quarter of the population of Afghanistan Photo UN Dispatch

A gathering of the persecuted Hazara Shiite community who represent about a quarter of the population of Afghanistan (Photo UN Dispatch)

Deployment to Afghanistan?

Now that the Assad government has retaken control of most of Syria’s territory, with Idlib province being the final holdout for Sunni rebels such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Fatemiyoun Division militants have begun returning to Iran, from where they might be deployed to Afghanistan as a potential US military drawdown might provide Tehran with greater maneuvering room. Iran may also draw on the militia group’s capabilities and experiences in Syria to serve Iran’s interests in Afghanistan at a time in which the US withdrawal and an American-Taliban deal possibly remains in the cards. Within this context, Iran will see the Islamic State in Afghanistan as a major threat. 

Among those in the Fatemiyoun Division who have returned to Afghanistan, most have settled in Herat, located near the Afghan-Iranian border. Battle-hardened from the past seven years of war in Syria’s most gruesome battles involving the Islamic State, these Afghan Shi’a fighters have the potential to heavily influence Afghanistan’s future security environment.

In Afghanistan, attitudes differ regarding the Fatemiyoun Division, with some seeing the faction as a destabilizing force and others, most notably Shi’a Afghans, viewing the militia as a useful bulwark against threats posed by violent Sunni extremists. Nonetheless, the government in Kabul, which seems to consider the group as a danger, has reportedly cracked down on its members recently, and also asked officials in Tehran to keep Fatemiyoun Division fighters in Iran rather than letting them return to Afghanistan. 

If the US continues pursuing its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, the Islamic Republic undoubtedly will keep up its “maximum resistance” agenda.

If the US continues pursuing its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, the Islamic Republic undoubtedly will keep up its “maximum resistance” agenda. This will increase the odds that Afghanistan might become more of a flashpoint in today’s low-intensity indirect conflict between Washington and Tehran. In this sense, the Fatemiyoun Division is seen as a long-term investment for Tehran that has proved its strength in Syria. Therefore, it would be conceivable for the Iranian leadership to deploy these militants to Afghanistan in great numbers if potential US military drawdown causes further instability or escalating tensions between the two adversaries lead to a military showdown in the region. Such a deployment would not cost the government in Tehran heavily, but it would yield significant rewards from the standpoint of Iran’s long-term interests in Afghanistan.

Some top Revolutionary Guards commanders have specifically described US military bases in Iran’s neighborhood, including the Bagram air base north of Afghan capital Kabul, as “meat under our teeth” that will be targeted in the event of conflict.    

In January, the US Treasury sanctioned the Fatemiyoun Division for its links to the IRGC as well as alleged human rights abuses. In response the group vowed to continue fighting “terrorism” in Syria and accused Washington of backing the Islamic State, but did not directly threaten the US. 

Unlike in Iraq, where Tehran-backed forces and US troops have clashed on various occasions over the past years, Afghanistan has remained mainly intact from Iranian-American confrontation involving militia groups such as the Fatemiyoun Division. This could, however, change gradually as the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy leaves almost no way forward for the Islamic Republic other than asymmetric retaliation and escalation. 

Iran’s recourse to such retaliatory measures as part of its “maximum resistance” campaign has already affected US allies in the region such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It could be brought to bear on US interests in Afghanistan too if the current spiral of hostility persists unabated.