- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
BEIRUT – As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gained the upper hand over an internal uprising in the past year, he received a major boost from his allies across the Middle East. The Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias, and Iranian military advisors, have all been key in turning the tide of the battle. Now, it appears a new group has entered the fray on the side of the Assad regime: Shiite fighters from Afghanistan.
After a dozen years in Afghanistan and thousands of Americans lives lost, the United States also finds itself in an awkward position by the flow of foreign fighters to Syria. While the U.S. occupation of the country was intended to pave the way for the eradication of lawless militias, fighters from Afghanistan are now engaged on both sides of the Syrian conflict. In addition to the Afghan Shiite fighters, a small number of Afghan jihadists have also joined the rebel cause. This dynamic is even clearer in Iraq, where Shiite militias and Sunni jihadists have also joined the Syrian battle – reopening old sectarian wounds and threatening the fragile stability back home.
Now, the Syrian war may be helping to bring these same Sunni-Shiite animosities to Southeast Asia. At the behest of Saudi Arabia, Pakistani military trainers have already been employed to train Syrian rebels – even as Pakistan struggles with sectarian violence that has claimed the lives of hundreds of Shiites over the past year. One Pakistani source cited this violence as one of the most important reasons that Islamabad could not intervene more aggressively in Syria, saying simply, "They have their hands full."
Tasnim News Agency, an Iranian news site close to the country’s hardliners, reported recently that 10 Afghan fighters were "martyred" in Syria defending the Sayyida Zeinab Shrine, a Shiite holy site south of Damascus. The bodies of the fighters, according to the article, were then sent to Iran where they were buried in the cities of Mashhad, Isfahan, Tehran, and Qom. The funeral for two of the fighters in Qom, Ibrahim Rezai and Najibullah Mirzai, was reportedly attended by a large number of Afghan refugees.
There have long been scattered claims from partisans on both sides that Afghan Shiites were fighting alongside Assad’s forces. As researcher Phillip Smyth wrote over the summer, Syrian rebel supporters were the first to make the claim, passing around a video allegedly showing an Afghan Shiite fighter firing a machine gun. Facebook posts from Assad supporters, meanwhile, also claimed that Afghan fighters had joined the Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, a Shiite militant group fighting in Syria that includes many foreign fighters.
But beyond these claims in social media, there was scant evidence that Afghan Shiites were actually present in Syria – until now.
"Seeing as Tasnim has been out there with this, [Afghan Shiite fighters] are finally getting more official credit" for fighting in Syria, said Smyth. "It’s important to note that all of the ‘Afghan martyrs’ were never named before this point."
Tasnim News Agency was launched last year with the explicit purpose of "defending the Islamic Revolution against negative media propaganda." Its launch was attended by former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, who ran for president in 2013 with the support of some elements of Iran’s conservative establishment. It is considered by some analysts to be close to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and indeed has been the first news agency to publish some IRGC statements and interviews with top IRGC commanders.
While the Assad regime has played down the importance of foreign fighters in its recent gains, Iranian media may have an incentive to publicize the exploits of its allies in Syria. By publicizing the presence of Lebanese, Iraqi, and now Afghan fighters, outlets like Tasnim News Agency may be seeking to craft an image of "a global, mainly Shia jihad in Syria," said Smyth.
Afghanistan’s Shiite community comprises roughly 20 percent of the country’s population, according to a CIA estimate. The community was brutally persecuted by the Taliban during the 1990s, though has seen their lot improve somewhat under the new government. Even as some Afghan Shiite fighters appear to be supporting Assad, the Taliban has publicly supported the rebellion, releasing a statement in August that "the oppressed Syrian nation has been burning in a raging fire."
Some analysts, however, believe that Iranian officials may be employing their Afghan allies in Syria with the express purpose of preparing them for future battles in their own country.
"Facilitating Afghans volunteers for the Shia cause in Syria not only means a response to Saudi mobilization of transnational Sunni radicals to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime," said Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow focused on the IRGC at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish American think tank. "[I]t also provides combat experience to Afghan Shia whose country most likely will descend into another dark war by proxy when the U.S. forces leave Afghanistan."