Iran is recruiting Afghan Shia fighters in their tens of thousands to step up the Islamic Republic's efforts in the Syrian war, offering them salaries to join the fight to save the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

As the conflict enters its fifth year, Iranian media has said that there are some 20,000 fighters in the Fatemiyon division, which is made up of both naturalised Afghans who lived in Iran and those who have travelled from Afghanistan.

"Five days ago, four Afghan Shia fighters were captured in southern rural Aleppo. In addition to Iranian fighters, there are also militia fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan, and recently China," Anas al-Abdah, the secretary of the opposition Syrian Coalition's political committee, told Al Jazeera.

"Iran is recruiting fighters from Shia communities across the world to fight in Syria," continued al-Abdah, who is based in Turkey.

"Iran considers itself the one and only reference point for all Shia people in the whole world. It organises them into political, social, and military organisations, both in their local communities and abroad.

"This is part of the main mission of the Iranian regime in terms of exporting the revolution. Iran recruits, motivates, organises, finances, and trains Shias from all over the world to help support Bashar al-Assad's regime from collapsing."

Confirming the exact number of Afghan Shia fighters in Syria was impossible, but Al Jazeera spoke with a military official who said 20,000 was in the correct range.

Colonel Hussain Kenani Moghdam of Iran's Sepah Pasdaran, or Revolutionary Guards – a branch of Iran's armed forces – told Al Jazeera: "Fatemiyon … numbers in the tens of thousands; most of its fighters are already trained in Afghanistan and those that have no training get trained in Afghanistan, and enter into Syria through Iraq or Lebanon."

He added that the Fatemiyon force could be likened to Shia-led militias in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Faris Baiush, a colonel in the Syrian opposition Free Syrian Army, told Al Jazeera that the FSA estimates that there are at least 2,000 Shia Afghan fighters currently in active battles in Syria, with most engaged in the city of Aleppo.

A report by Iran's Mashregh News, which is affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, said that the Fatemiyon force comprises some 20,000 fighters. More than 200 of them, it added, have been killed in battles across Syria since 2013.


Many captured Afghan Shia fighters say they are attracted to Syria by the promise of a financial reward. Salaries made by their Iranian recruits are reported to range from $500 and $1,000 a month.

Others say that joining the war is a way of escaping prison sentences on charges including drug trafficking, which often end in the death penalty in Iran. 

Ghanbar Naderi, an Iranian political analyst and journalist for Kayhan International, told Al Jazeera: "There are some Afghans who are naturalised Iranians and are part of the armed forces as a foreign legion.

"They are sent to Syria to defend the holy sites and key government buildings just like Iranian nationals. A large number of these people have been killed in Syria and Iraq.

"Military links between Afghan nationals and the Iranian army have been ongoing for quite some time. Now the truth has surfaced that these people are fighting side by side [with] the Iranian, Syrian and Iraqi forces.

"The fact that there are no jobs any more due to the economy's downturn and punitive sanctions in this country, some Afghans find it lucrative to be sent to Syria to fight and make good amount of money - between $500 to $1000, but they are not forced to go."

The Fatemiyon is just one example of Iran's growing influence in recruiting fighters in the region.

200-strong regional army

Earlier this month, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) – another Iranian military branch – announced that Iran commands a regional force of 200,000 young armed men in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"The current developments in the region, the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Takfiri groups, and the events that occurred in the past years are paving the ground for the emergence of Imam Mahdi, and you can now see the positive results in the readiness of nearly 200,000 young armed in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen," Jafari said, addressing a memorial ceremony in Tehran for an Iranian killed in Syria.

Video footage emerges, almost on a daily basis, of Afghan fighters killed in Syria and paraded in their coffins across Iranian cities before burial.

Courtesy Aljazeera