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A New Report Reveals Extent of Iran’s Use of Refugee Child Soldiers in Its Syrian War

VANCOUVER, CANADA – Iran has for years been sending Afghan refugees to fight its proxy wars in Syria. A new investigative report now reveals the extent of the exploitation. The report shows how the Islamic Republic has recruited dozens of underage children to fight in defence of the Assad government in Syria.      

The report was published on Tuesday, March 12, by the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), an organization that tracks human rights violations in Iran.

“An Insight into Iran’s Recruitment Tactics & Use of Child Soldiers” investigates Iran’s decades-long practice of recruiting child soldiers dating back to the deadly war with Iraq in the 1980s. It highlights Iran’s targeting of vulnerable populations, particularly Afghan children, through promises of financial rewards and legal residency.      

As pressures mounted against the government of Bashar a-Assad in Syria, its arch supporter, Iran’s revolutionary guard corps (IRGC) resorted to recruiting refugees from Afghanistan to fight on its behalf in Syria. Participants were promised financial rewards and prospects of legal residency in Iran which rarely grants citizenship rights to foreigners.

HRANA now reveals that the extent of using child soldiers in Iran’s war in Syria has been much larger than previously thought. Through talking to families of children who were killed in Syria and identifying many of their graves in Iranian cemeteries, HRANA says it has been able to confirm hundreds of children under the age of 18 who fought and died in Syria.

The Fatimiyoun Brigade, the main militia unit formed with Afghan refugees, began with 22 members but soon grew to thousands of fighters. By 2018, it numbered around 5,000 members, with 2,000 deployed in Syria.      

Iran’s military intervention in Syria began in March 2011, with the aim of supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime and preventing its downfall. Qassem Soleimani, then commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, mobilized a force of around 70,000-strong from various sects, including Alawites, Sunnis, and Shiites aligning with Iran’s interests in the Middle East and West Asia.

Iran used the Afghan refugees to protect frontlines where casualties were high. By January 2016, over 2,000 members of the Fatemiyoun Brigade had been killed and another 8,000 were wounded.

As of September 2018, HRANA says, at least 80,000 people had been sent to Syria as part of the Fatemiyoun battalions, resulting in over 2,800 casualties.

Throughout these years, the IRGC has grown rapidly to an indispensable force, expanding the reach of the Islamic Revolution across the Middle East. Although its exact budget Iran spends on overseas military operations is unknown, IRGC’s budget increased by more than two folds last year to above $4 billion.

Recruitment into the Fatemiyoun Brigade is characterized by a mix of incentives and coercion. Afghan migrants, including second-generation immigrants in Iran, are targeted, often facing limited options like deportation or enlistment. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) employs religious appeals, financial inducements, and promises of residency permits to entice recruits.

The UN’s stark statistics on Afghan refugees in Iran underscore the magnitude of the issue, with millions living in precarious conditions. It says there are 780,000 refugees registered by the organization in Iran. Another 2.6 million, however, live illegally along with 600,000 others who possess legal residency documents.      

The complex circumstances surrounding residency and citizenship status for Afghan individuals in Iran have presented opportunities for Iran’s military entities to enlist Afghan citizens in the country’s proxy conflicts. Afghan youths, including those as young as 15, were recruited, often through deceptive means or under pressure.

At the heart of IRGC’s recruitment for the Fatemiyoun Brigade is Al-Mustafa International University, supervised by Iran’s Supreme Leader. Many brigade members either studied at Al-Mustafa before joining the force or joined while enrolled there. In 2020, the US sanctioned Al-Mustafa for its involvement in recruiting for the Fatemiyoun Brigade alongside the Quds Force.

Additionally, Iranian governorates and various centres, including those affiliated with the IRGC, are active in recruiting fighters for Tehran’s proxy war across the Middle East. These cultural and religious centres span as far as Germany and Sweden, preaching the Islamic revolution.

The use of child soldiers by Iran in Syria is nothing new. Human Rights Watch confirmed the recruitment of at least eight Afghan children by the IRGC in 2017, all of whom were killed. Four of them were only 14 years old at the time of their death.