Afghanistan’s Foreign Ministry has called on the Iranian government to stop recruiting and sending Afghan refugees to fight in Syria, Afghan media and BBC Persian report. Ahmad Shekaib Mostaghni, the ministry’s spokesman, raised particular concern about Afghan children deployed by the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.) to the Syrian battlefield. He also alleged that a number of Afghan refugees in Iran are “forced or incentivized” to commit actions that run “counter to international norms.” Mostaghni emphasized that the Afghan government is probing the case and has shared its concern with the U.N. Refugee Agency and Iranian government officials.

Iranian officials claim that Afghan refugees “volunteer” to fight in Syria to defend sacred Shiite shrines in Damascus. But Mostaghni noted that recent reports by international organizations show that Afghan are compelled to join the Syrian war. He called on Tehran to take practical measures to end Afghans’ participation in the Syrian civil war.

The strong reaction from Kabul came after Human Rights Watch reported on October 1 that the I.R.G.C. has recruited Afghan children living in Iran to fight in support of the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. “Afghan children as young as 14 have fought in the Fatemiyoun division,” said the rights watchdog’s report referring to the Afghan militia unit fighting in Syria. “Under international law, recruiting children under the age of 15 to participate actively in hostilities is a war crime,” it added.

“Iran should immediately end the recruitment of child soldiers and bring back any Afghan children it has sent to fight in Syria,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Rather than preying on vulnerable immigrant and refugee children, the Iranian authorities should protect all children and hold those responsible for recruiting Afghan children to account.”

Sebghatullah Ahmadi, the deputy spokesman for Afghanistan’s Foreign Ministry, also confirmed Human Rights Watch’s report. He said Tehran must stop dispatching Afghans to fight in Syria whether it is on a voluntary basis or by force.  

Comment: Over the past five years, the I.R.G.C. has recruited, indoctrinated, trained and deployed thousands of Afghan Shiites to fight under its command against Sunni rebel groups across Syria. The Afghan militia unit in Syria – called the Fatemiyoun Division – reportedly has nearly 20,000 active fighters.

The Fatemiyoun was founded by leaders of two Afghan Shiite militant groups: Sepah-e Muhammad (Muhammad Army), an Iran-backed group that operated against the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and the Abuzar Brigade, which fought alongside Iranian military forces against Iraq in the 1980s. According to Iranian military sources, more than 2,000 Afghans perished during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. The founder of Fatemiyoun, Alireza Tavasoli, was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war and was a close confidante of Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the I.R.G.C.’s elite Quds Force; when Tavasoli was killed in Syria, Soleimani visited his family to pay tribute.

The Fatemiyoun’s sister organization, the Zainabyoun Brigade, is much smaller in size and is comprised of hundreds of Shiites from Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province and Parachinar in the Kurram tribal area as well as Pakistanis living inside Iran.

The Iranian government does not provide information on Syrian casualties, but according to Ali Alfoneh, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who monitors casualty number of Iranian-led forces in Syria, about 750 Afghan Shiites have been killed in Syria since September 2013.

While the Iranian government denies allegations that it coerces Afghans to fight in the Middle East, it makes no secret of the fact that Afghan Shiites fight alongside the I.R.G.C, Hezbollah and Iran-backed Iraqi militias across Syria. Over the past two years, the Iranian state-run media has significantly raised the profile of Afghan and Pakistani combatants. I.R.G.C.-affiliated websites publish photographs of Soleimani’s visits to Fatemiyoun units in Syria, and the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting often airs documentaries about the Fatemiyoun Division, lionizing its combatants and encouraging more Afghans to join in. Furthermore, the I.R.G.C. and its Basij Force regularly organize elaborate funeral processions for Afghans and Pakistanis killed in Syria.

Interviews with Fatemiyoun militants with the Afghan media demonstrate that the I.R.G.C. recruits destitute and undocumented Afghan refugees by offering them permanent residency, financial aid, and other incentives for their families. Others say they joined Iran’s war in Syria to escape prison sentences. Of some 2.5 million Afghans living in Iran, a third are registered as refugees while the remainder are mostly illegal economic migrants. However, not all Afghan Shiites fight in Syria for money or legal status. Many also go to Syria for ideological, religious and political reasons.

The I.R.G.C. reportedly provides a four-week, pre-deployment training to Fateimyoun combatants at a “special training base” inside Iran. US intelligence agencies have identified nine training camps inside Iran where Afghans and Pakistanis are being trained.  One Afghan who had returned from Syria told Afghan daily Hasht-e Sobh that he, along with other Afghans, received training at a military headquarters in Iran’s Yazd Province, and were subsequently transferred to a an I.R.G.C.-run military center called Imam Hossein Base located in “Khanteman” region of Aleppo.

The increasing role of Afghan and Pakistani Shiites in defending the Assad regime comes at a time when their fellow Sunni countrymen are fighting on the opposing side in Syria – sparking fears that they will fuel sectarian tension in their respective countries once they return. “It is likely that Sunni and Shiite Afghans fighting in Syria and Yemen return someday and their sectarian grudges get them to fight each other at home,” warned Hasht-e Sobh.

The consequences are already felt in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The so-called Islamic State and Punjabi sectarian groups such as Lashkar-e Jhangvi have claimed credit for terrorist attacks against the Shiite communities in both countries and blamed Shiites’ participation in the Syrian conflict.