Iran has been recruiting thousands of Afghan refugees to fight in Syria, offering $500 a month and Iranian residency to help the Assad regime beat back rebel forces, according to Afghans and Western officials.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, recruits and trains Shiite militias to fight in Syria. Details of their recruitment efforts were posted this week on a blog focused on Afghan refugees in Iran and confirmed by the office of Grand Ayatollah Mohaghegh Kabuli, an Afghan religious leader in the Iranian holy city of Qom. A member of the IRGC also confirmed the details.
“They [IRGC] find a connection to the refugee community and work on convincing our youth to go and fight in Syria,” said the office administrator of Ayatollah Kabuli, reached by telephone in Qom. “They give them everything from salary to residency.” Iran is offering the refugees school registration for their children and charity cards in addition to the $500 stipend and residency.
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Many Afghan young men have written to Ayatollah Kabuli to ask whether fighting in Syria was religiously sanctioned, his office said. He responded only if they were defending Shiite shrines. Lately, his office said he has kept silent and not even attended funerals of Afghans killed in Syria.
On Thursday, a large funeral procession attended by local and religious officials was held in the northwestern city of Mashhad, near the Afghan border, for four Afghan refugees killed in Syria. The coffins were shrouded in green cloth and the men’s pictures were pinned to the sides, according to reports on Shiite religious websites and a news agency linked to the Revolutionary Guards.
Reports of funerals for the Afghan recruits who die in Syria began to emerge in November. Recently, there have been more frequent reports of such deaths popping up in Iranian media.
Hamid Babaei, a spokesman for the U.N. mission to Iran, said allegations that Iran is sending Afghan refugees to Syria as fighters are unfounded.
“Iranian presence in the country is solely advisory in nature in order to help counter the extremist… al-Qaeda groups from committing more massacre and bloodshed,” he said.
Both Iran and Hezbollah have openly taken credit for their efforts in Syria. Gen. Hossein Hamedani, a senior Guards commander involved in planning war strategy in Syria, said last week that with God’s help, Iran had trained an extra 130,000 soldiers ready for dispatch.
“Nothing happens in Syria without Iran’s hand,” said Hossein Sheikholeslam, a lawmaker and parliament’s deputy head of foreign affairs.
Syria’s civil war shows no sign of subsiding and both Iran and Hezbollah are wary of losing their trained men on the ground and the risk of public backlash with dead bodies returning home every week.
A Western official in Iran said recruiting Afghans was part of a shifting strategy to send poor foot soldiers to the front lines from a community with little clout to minimize casualties among Hezbollah and Guards members and political fallout.
The Afghan recruits, like Hezbollah and most Iranians, are all Shiites and support the Syrian regime dominated by minority Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Afghan refugees are among the most vulnerable and poor in Iran.
There are about one million registered Afghan refugees in Iran, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
But additionally, there are as many as 2 million unregistered migrants, according to Human Rights Watch. Up to 800 Afghans try to cross illegally into Iran every day, according to Afghanistan’s refugee ministry.
They are not allowed to officially work, attend school or register marriages or births.
Most Afghans work as day laborers in construction for meager salaries…