The relevant questions Much has been written and said about the foreign Shi’a volunteers fighting for the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria. While Iranian and Syrian propaganda describe them as entirely motivated by the desire of defending Shi’a communities from hostile groups (Salafists and Daesh), the Syrian opposition and much of the western media describe them as mercenaries or conscripted cannon fodder, who joined the fight in Syria for money or in order to escape a worse fate (typically detention in Iran, or expulsion from the country with their families).
These unilateral characterisations are characteristic of civil wars and it should not surprise that the parties in the conflict indulge in them. In reality the motivations that push people to risk their lives in a conflict are complex, and rarely unilateral. Moreover, their motivations for joining are not necessarily the most important matter: how did they experience their service in Syria and what kind of attitude they had towards their organizations when they came out of it? An efficient military organization attracts recruits for a wide variety of reasons, often misleading or coercing its recruits, but it then socializes them into the organization. We learn more by looking at the people who come out of a military organization, than at those who enter it.
The largest contingent of foreign fighters joining Assad’s forces came from Afghanistan. There are two organisations of Shi’a volunteers, Liwa Fatimiyun and Liwa Baba Mazari; the former is by far the largest. Liwa Baba Mazari was established only in May 2017 and had according to IRGC sources 1,400 members in early 2018. Fatimiyun, which was established much earlier in 2014, had as many as 10 times that number. Focusing on the Afghan contingent is therefore a reasonable surrogate to the daunting task of discussing in detail the motivations of each of the myriad Shi’a militias operating in Syria. While these organizations had Afghan leaders and cadres, it seems clear that the IRGC proactively encouraged their formation by lobbying and ‘advising’ clerics and activists who wanted to do ‘something’ for their brethren in Syria. In countries like Lebanon and Iraq there were already powerful, well organised armed groups linked to the IRGC or in any case ready to cooperate with it or with Hezbollah of Lebanon, and not as much proactive IRGC work was needed to raise volunteers.
Much of the recruitment did take place in Iran itself, among Afghan emigrant workers, but in this Afghans are a special case in that they constitute a large migrant community in Iran. Iraqis, Lebanese and other volunteers were largely recruited in their own countries. Recruitment for Liwa Fatimiyun and Liwa Baba Mazari too was also carried out in Afghanistan through clerical networks (cautiously because it is banned by the Afghan authorities).
Mercenaries or volunteers?
Stories of Fatimiyun and similar militias being mostly staffed by detainees, who joined in exchange for freedom, or other coerced recruits seem to be at least largely inflated if not completely untrue. Some prisoners taken by the Syrian opposition might well have described themselves as former detainees, but considering that they faced execution at the hand of Syrian opposition groups, it is understandable that they might have lied to obtain mercy. Surely there have been many more Afghans fighting for Assad, than Afghan detainees in Iran. The Iranians do appear to have recruited detained and illegal residents in Iran, but mostly for a separate, non-sectarian militia sent to hold defensive positions, initially in Deir Ezzor. The role of this smaller militia was quite marginal in the conflict.
In reality the IRGC seems to have been nurturing ambitions for militias such as Fatimiyun, that are incompatible with stuffing them with social rejects and undesirable elements. Although it is certainly plausible that many, even a majority might have joined primarily because of the salary and of the perks involved (as some interviewees admit), the IRGC needed a core of true believers large enough to carry the whole of Fatimiyun towards the demanding targets set for them by the IRGC.
And Fatimiyun seems to have largely met the expectations of the IRGC. Syrian army officers mostly have little sympathy for these militias, with whom they have rivalry. Still in interviews they admitted that Fatimiyun and other foreign militias proved to be highly motivated and aggressive fighters, playing a major role in claiming ground back from opposition forces. According to the same sources, this is true in comparison not only to the notoriously ineffective Syrian Arab Army, but also in comparison to a range of Syrian militias, some sectarian and some not. This seems a genuine assessment, as Syrian army officers should have no reason to overstate the capabilities of the foreign volunteers. In addition, fighters in Syria were given leave regularly, but according to interviewees rarely anybody tried to desert.
It is more in general beyond doubt that the deployment of these militias contributed to reinvigorating the faltering military campaign of the Assad regime. It is actually counterproductive for Syrian opposition groups to suggest (as they repeatedly did) that the fighters that played an important role in defeating them were a bunch of essentially slave fighters.
The aggressive attitude and high moral of these militias are not what one would expect of largely mercenary forces either. Veteran interviewees from Afghanistan as well as serving militia commanders in Syria all confirm that the salary package is indeed quite attractive: about $1,000/month for a common fighter, which is much more than what these volunteers would make if they decided to fight for whatever party in their country of origins, Afghanistan. Some additional perks are offered to prospective volunteers, of which probably the one most attractive to many of them is permanent resident permit in Iran (after two tours of duty) and even Iranian citizenship (after three tours of duty in Syria), otherwise very hard to get for Afghans.
However attractive these incentives might be, it should also be considered that the losses in combat have been high. In 2013-17, 2,000 were killed from Fatimiyun’s ranks alone according to the organization’s own claims. One veteran estimated that 20,000 Afghans went through the ranks of Fatimiyun in total up to 2018, – that would make a total KIA rate of around 10%, with at least three or four as many wounded. This is not a light casualty rate by any means, and the Syrian war was described as ferocious even by the Shi’a TV channels that can be viewed in Afghanistan, so the Afghan recruits knew what they were going to face.
The IRGC and Hezbollah played the key role in shaping the several Shi’a militias from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, etc. that flocked to the Syrian battlefields. Clearly were successful in processing whatever lot of recruits they were getting, and in turning them into an effective fighting force.
Victory in Syria: the end or the beginning?
Indeed as hinted above from a relatively early stage the IRGC nurtured ambitions for the foreign militias they were bringing to Syria. Says a veteran, interviewed in Afghanistan in autumn 2018, that
When we were in a training centre at the Imam Hussain military camp, the Iranian trainers and commanders […] told us several times that when the fight in Syria ends, Fatemiyun will remain a well trained force for the Afghan Shi’a community when there will be need for it.
Others have confirmed the same. All veterans interviewed confirmed that the Afghan volunteers were well treated in Syria by IRGC, other Shi’a forces, and by the Syrian armed forces. ‘The Iranian commanders were always behind us and honestly they always listened to us and addressed our problems quickly.’
We were prepared and we had the same weapons of the Iranians and Hezbollah […]. We had the same medical facilities and other stuff. If there had been differences between the Afghan fighters and the others like Iranians or Hezbollahis, then we never have fought there.
The only major issue that appears to have arisen is the treatment of crippled veterans, who were denied benefits. Says one of them, interviewed in Afghanistan, that Iranian police told him ‘you are not useful for Iran anymore because you are disabled.’ Clearly Iranian concern for the Shi’a volunteers was not due to charitable intents, but a clear plan to create armed forces that could support Iran’s or the IRGC’s strategic aims much beyond Syria.
Indeed in 2015-16 already the IRGC started laying the groundwork for setting up an Afghan branch of Fatimiyun (and later of Liwa Baba Mazari as well). Not all those going back to Afghanistan have any intention of joining such structures, as many have been traumatised by the level of violence experienced in Syria and by the loss of comrades. One complaint often heard from veterans is that while members of Fatimiyun were treated as equals in all respect by their Iranian, Syrian and other counterparts, they tended to be sent to the frontline more often than other contingents. Still many veterans remain committed to the cause of ‘protecting our Shi’a communities’ especially if that can be done staying at home.
If there will be need in Afghanistan our own country, I am ready to join with a Shi’a militia against the cruelties and brutalities of Daesh in Afghanistan. As you witness, Daesh is everyday attacking Shi’a communities in west Kabul, if there will be any Shi’a militia against Daesh then I am ready to join them.
Already Hazara politicians, faced with regular massacres of members of their community by Daesh, are beginning to invoke the arming of the Shi’a community.
What is seen a self-protection by a community, can be seen as impending aggression by another. Indeed Fatimiyun provides a good example of these dynamics already because the organization got involved already in the conflict between Pashtun nomads and Hazara settlers in central Afghanistan. Alipur, in the past a commander linked to a local Hazara party, has joined hands with Fatimiyun and started recruiting veterans of Syria into his militia, that has been blocking access to the pastures of Hazarajat in Behsud (Wardak) against armed nomads for years. The two communities accuse each other of aggression.
Recently Afghan police tried to raid Alipur’s headquarter in Lal wa Sarjangal (Ghor) ended up with four dead policemen, several Hazara civilians killed and Alipur returning to Behsud to a hero’s welcome. The raid was seen by many Hazaras as the demonstration that the Afghan state was more active in depriving them of their ability to defend themselves, than in dismantling Daesh terror networks in Kabul. Pashtuns see more than ever Alipur as a villain, accused of many violent abuses.
Whatever the actual facts, this type of dynamics contributes to turning what might even any ‘mercenaries’, who might have joined Fatimiyun because of attractive conditions of employment, into real ‘volunteers’ who believe their community needs somebody like them for self-defence. Communitarian and sectarian tension in Afghanistan and throughout the region provides these militias with a raison d’être, even if that is not why they were formed in the first place and not why individuals originally joined.
Although none of the Afghan veterans interviewed had been offered to deploy beyond Syria or Afghanistan (or Iran for training), other researchers have been in contact with seasoned Afghan cadres sent to Iraq and Yemen. Furthermore, the IRGC has been actively discussing its plans to establish a permanent base in Syria for units from the Shi’a militias it has been sponsoring, implying that it does not plan a complete withdrawal after the conflict afterwards. The Syrian authorities are less than enthusiastic about such plans, the Russians are actively opposed, and even Hezbollah is not keen, so it is by no means certain that it will happen. But the very fact that the IRGC has been lobbying for it highlights its plans for the future. For the IRGC, victory in Syria is the beginning, not the end of militias like Fatimiyun.