Security

Afghan, Pakistani mercenaries abandon IRGC-backed militias in Syria

By Faris al-Omran

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Elements of the Fatemiyoun Division, an IRGC-backed militia comprised of Afghan mercenaries, are pictured in eastern Syria in a photograph posted online on March 3. [Syrian Observatory for Human Rights]

Afghan and Pakistani mercenaries are abandoning militias organised and funded by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Syria in increasing numbers, with many opting to return home.

The IRGC directs more than 40 militias in Syria -- about 150,000 fighters in total. In addition to Afghan and Pakistani nationals, it has recruited mercenaries from Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain.

Recent weeks have seen a notable exodus of foreign fighters, especially Afghans and Pakistanis, from those militias, said Hisham al-Mustafa, a member of the al-Hasakeh province political committee.

Large numbers of mercenaries -- perhaps in the hundreds -- have left the militias and Syria behind, he said, and returned to their home countries.

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Supporters of IRGC-backed Lebanese Hizbullah carry coffins of group members killed in Syria during a funeral procession in a suburb of Beirut on March 1, 2020. [STR/AFP]

They have many reasons to leave, he said, but foremost among them is the decline in financial support from the IRGC.

Monthly salaries peaked at about $1,500 between 2017 and 2018 but have since dropped to less than a third of that amount because of Iran's economic crisis -- partly a result of sanctions -- and the collapse of its national currency, al-Mustafa said.

A delay in payment of those salaries has aroused growing "discontent and resentment among the fighters", he said.

'The biggest mistake'

IRGC-backed militia members have been complaining about the neglect they suffer, with local media reports indicating dozens contracted COVID-19 and that some died from not receiving the necessary medical attention.

Recurrent air strikes pounding militia strongholds in eastern Syria are another reason for the departure of foreign mercenaries, al-Mustafa said.

"They are frustrated and on edge because of these attacks, as many of them now realise they are not safe and that IRGC commanders are dragging them to their death," he said.

Most of the foreign fighters in the Iranian militias are elements of two main groups: the Fatemiyoun Division and the Zainabiyoun Brigade.

The Fatemiyoun Division, established by the IRGC in 2014, comprises more than 8,000 Afghan fighters according to some estimates, while the Zainabiyoun Brigade, established in Syria in 2012, reportedly comprises between 2,000 and 5,000 fighters, mostly from Pakistan.

About 200 members of these two militias in Deir Ezzor city completed their contracts and simply went home after IRGC commanders refused to increase their pay, according to a mid-April report by al-Araby al-Jadeed.

In an April 4 report on IranWire, an Afghan fighter from the Fatemiyoun Division who recently returned from Syria described how the IRGC recruited and trained him.

The IRGC then thrust him and other hapless Afghan recruits into the Syrian war, he said, describing his participation in the war as "the biggest mistake" of his life.

He and his compatriots were fighting not "to defend the shrines" as the Iranian commanders claimed, he said, but rather to serve Iran's interests.

Conflicts among militias

"The Iranian regime recruited thousands of foreign mercenaries and paid them generously to protect its influence and its expansionist project in the region," said Sheikh Mohammed Azzam al-Sukhni, of the Badiyat Homs political commission.

But today it is unable to pay all those who either joined its militias for money or were misled by false religious slogans, he said.

Anticipating the shrinkage of its Syria-based militias, the IRGC recently has sought to recruit the poorest Syrians, many of whom are willing to work for low pay.

Still, early signs show that those militias are falling apart, said al-Sukhni.

"Relations among these armed groups keep getting worse, as their commanders are feuding with each other," he said.

The militias have targeted each other with tit-for-tat assassinations, generally over revenue streams, he said, especially in Syria's eastern desert (Badiya), al-Sukhnah, Palmyra and Muhin.

Many foreign commanders and mercenaries feel discriminated against by IRGC commanders and by their most prominent allies, such as Lebanese Hizbullah and Iraqi Kataib Hizbullah, who appear to receive more favourable treatment.

Is Iranian influence good for Afghanistan?
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The IRGC is a terrorist organization that was formed by the government of Iran to destabilize the region and the countries of the Persian Gulf. The organization has been involved in the wars of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and has tried a lot to bring the Taliban under its influence, but it could not do so, because the Taliban have ideological differences with them. That’s why it formed the Fatemiyouns. The Fatemiyouns were formed from Shia Hazaras of Afghanistan, and are fighting in Iran's proxy war in Syria and Iraq, and now that the Taliban are coming, Iran is trying to send the Fatemiyouns to Afghanistan to fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan so that the Taliban do not prevent the influence of Iran in Afghanistan, because during the Taliban's era, there weren't any Iranian activities in Afghanistan, and the Taliban tried a lot to control Iran's influence in Afghanistan, but in the last 20 years, Iran has been able to have widespread influence in Afghanistan and fund dozens of media outlets in the country in order to run articles to the benefit of Iran. It has even established universities in some parts of the country to implement the Iranian curriculum. Iran's influence must be prevented in Afghanistan, or else it will turn Afghanistan into Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon.

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All of Iran's revenues and capital are spent on financing militias in various countries. That’s why Iran's economy is getting worse day by day. If not, Iran is a rich country and has huge oil and gas reserves. If there had been a good government in Iran, this country would have been recognized as a great economic power, but unfortunately, the mistaken policies of the government and the corrupt and pro war statesmen have ruined this country and its people. Despite having rich oil, gas and other natural resources, the people of Iran are dying from hunger.

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