Iran’s Foreign Legion in Syria
By Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah
Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria and especially since the advent of the Islamic State (ISIS) and its franchises in the Arab Middle East and Africa, world attention has been focused on the foreign volunteers who flocked by the thousands to boost the ranks of the jihadist militias, mainly the ranks of the Islamic State and Al-Qaida.
The attacks perpetrated in Europe, the United States, and throughout the world, by terrorists who were trained and inspired by the jihadist organizations, emphasizes the need to understand the phenomena to combat it better. Many analysts concentrated on the hordes of jihadi volunteers from more than 80 nations and warned about the dangers of those fighters returning home to become sleeper operatives.
By contrast, while there is considerable media coverage about the foreign jihadists and while the Western coalition tries to contain the flow of new recruits to ISIS, under the radar and almost unnoticed, Iran managed to deploy in Syria its own fighters and proxy armies to fight for the Assad regime’s survival in Syria. While the jihadist organizations recruited their volunteers from the Sunni Muslim world, Iran turned to the Shiite populations to supply the needed manpower for Iran’s Syrian front.
Reluctant to get involved directly in the civil war, the Iranians chose to send a limited operational force to Syria, mainly advisers from the Revolutionary Guards and other elite units. The assessment is that there are about 1,500-3,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers present in Syria and serving mainly as advisers responsible for logistics, intelligence gathering, and training.
As a result, regional Shiite forces answer directly to Tehran’s orders since they were created by Iran and made to serve first and foremost Iranian policy in the region. According to an Iranian Revolutionary Guard officer, the Guard has formed and trained 42 brigades and 138 battalions, all sent to defend the Assad regime!
At least five national entities were to provide the manpower to serve the Iranian agenda in Syria:
All military units receive their orders from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Their salaries, equipment, and training are totally under Iranian supervision and control. They are coordinated by the Quds Division of the Revolutionary Guards, commanded by Qasem Soleimani, even though each division enjoys a relatively high degree of autonomy.
Hizbullah’s presence in Syria was first publicized in the battle of Al-Qusayr (Homs Directorate) in 2013 and is at the center of public debate in Lebanon. While Hizbullah has been criticized because of its participation in the battle against Sunni rebel movements, no political force in Lebanon has dared to challenge its autonomy and force. Hizbullah’s militia answers to the command of the Lebanese army. Hizbullah has been parading U.S. equipment (M-113 armored personnel carriers) provided by the United States to the Lebanese Army while claiming that these were Israeli armored vehicles seized during the 2006 Second Lebanese war.
The “Fatimiyoun Brigade” (Liwa’ Al-Fatimiyoun): The Brigade (3,500 fighters) was founded in 2013 by the Revolutionary Guard and was recruited from Afghani refugees residing in Iran. Hizbullah in Lebanon utilized this same source of manpower, becoming a so-to-speak “Hizbullah of Afghanistan.” Both Iran and Hizbullah took advantage of the economic and political plight of the Afghan refugees seeking asylum in Iran, enrolling them in the military units meant to fight alongside Assad’s forces in Syria. The Afghans, originating mostly from southern Afghanistan, an area adjacent to the Pakistani-Iranian borders, spent large amounts of money to finance their illegal entry to Iran. They travel from the Afghan province to Pakistani Baluchistan bordering the Pakistani frontier, their first stop before arriving in Iran.
Iran represents not only a political safe haven for those Afghans fleeing the war in their country but presents an opportunity to acquire economic benefit. An average Afghan receives a monthly salary of $80 in Afghanistan, while he could be paid almost four-fold in Iran ($320). According to some sources, the Afghans repatriate almost $500 million dollars annually to their mother country from their Iranian “employer.”
However, being an illegal Afghan resident in Iran is not without disadvantages. The Afghans are mistreated and can be jailed for no apparent reason for periods of time sometimes extending to a few months. Still 500 to 600 illegal Afghans enter Iran per month. While hundreds are confined at the end of their journey in refugee camps in Iran, the luckiest will obtain a work permit; others will get involved in drug trafficking or try to find a way to filter themselves to Europe. Hundreds of them are routinely caught at the borders and deported back to Afghanistan.
When Iran looked at the dire situation of the Assad regime and tried to find ways to assist Assad without getting involved with Iranian “boots on the ground,” the alternative offered by the Afghans was ideal. They were Shiites, of Farsi-speaking ethnicity (the Hazara). With $350-500 for monthly pay and with a permanent residency permit granted to the Afghan refugee after his return from Syria, the Iranian regime succeeded in recruiting the necessary manpower needed to bolster the Syrian regime. Moreover, unlike an Iranian fighter, as an illegal migrant with an unknown identity, an Afghan killed in action would not be a burden to the Iranian treasury. Most importantly, Iran could easily deny its involvement and its intervention. Were it not for the scores of Afghans killed in battle and others taken prisoners by the rebels, Iran would not have had to accept any responsibility concerning the Afghani presence. When Iran finally decided to relate to the Afghans, Iran stated that they died while protecting the Shiite shrines in Syria.
According to some reports, the Iranian regime began recruiting the Afghans probably already in 2011-2012 (through threats and oppressive measures) at the beginning of the civil war in Syria since the first information emerged about their presence at the end of 2012. Iran succeeded in the short term to enlist thousands of them. Most of the recruits came from the Afghan town of Harat. Iran also made use of the Shiite religious schools (Hussayniyah) and the social centers it funded at the “Khatem Al-Nabeyeen” (Seal of Prophethood) University in Kabul. Other recruitment centers are in Bayman (center of Afghanistan) and the town of Hirat, near the Iranian border.
The Afghans were trained by the Revolutionary Guards under the direct responsibility of the Quds Division. The Afghan fighters were first integrated into the “Abu Fadl Al-Abbas Brigade” before creating an entity of their own named “Al-Fatimiyoun Brigade.” (The Fatimids were an Ismaili Shiite Caliphate that ruled Egypt, North Africa, the Red Sea, parts of the Mediterranean, Hejaz, and the Middle East 909-1171). The Brigade was first deployed in Damascus with the specific mission to protect the Sayda Zaynab shrine (a Shiite holy site where is believed Zaynab, granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammad, is buried). Later, the Brigade was deployed mostly in southern Syria (Dar’aa region) where it confronted Al-Qaida, ISIS, and the Free Syrian Army contingents. The Brigade has also been involved in a battle in northern Syria (Idlib), Aleppo, and Palmyra (Tadmor). It is believed that the Brigade lost hundreds of its fighters in the course of its existence. It lost both its commander Ali Rida Tawassoli and his deputy in 2015.
Khadem el-‘Aqila Brigade: This Brigade, also composed of Afghan recruits made its first appearance in late 2015. Little is known about it.
The Zaynabiyoun Brigade (Liwa’ Zaynabiyoun): As in the Afghani case, Iran turned towards the Shiite community in Pakistan, to recruit manpower in its effort to assist the Assad regime in Syria. However, unlike the Afghans, the Brigade is a Hizbullah franchise. A simple look at its banner shows the similarity with Hizbullah’s banner with just one difference: the reference in Arabic is “The Muslim Resistance in Pakistan” ( Al-Muqawama Al-Islamiyya Fi Al-Bakistan), and in some cases, the banner shows the logo of Hizbullah and “Hizbullah’s Pakistan Army” (Jaysh Hizbullah Bakistan). As in the Afghan case, the recruits come from the Hazara Farsi-speaking ethnic group living in Pakistan, Shiite Pakistanis living in Iran, and native Shiite of Parachinar and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. They are initially trained for 45 days in Iran and then six months in Syria.
The Pakistanis were part of the Afghani contingent but in the course of time, became numerous enough to enable the formation of their own Brigade as of 2015. Their main mission was to defend the Sayda Zeynab shrine in Damascus and other Shiite holy sites. However, since its first appearance in 2013, the Brigade has been active on several fronts. Unlike the Afghans, it seems that the Pakistanis are paid with a much higher salary ($1,200 per month).
The Yemenite/Houthi Contribution
Liwa Saada: Named after the Shiite majority populated town in northern Yemen, this contingent was formed by Yemenite Shiites (Houthis) and numbers about 750 fighters, which are deployed around Damascus. The Houthi rebels in Yemen are trained, armed, and funded by Iran.
The Iraqi Shiite Contingent
The Iraqi Shiite contingent is the largest force engaged to defend the Assad regime. According to Mohanad Mezghich, they could number around 40,000 fighters. Here are some of the main Iraqi Shiite formations on the battlefield in Syria:
Harakat al Nujaba’ (The Nobles’ Movement): The movement’s original name is “Islamic Resistance Hizbullah – The Movement the Noble Ones” (Arabic: Al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya Harakat Hizbullah Al-Nujaba). The name comes from a quotation of Zaynab, the Prophet’s granddaughter, who described Imam Hussein’s household and his supporters as the Noble Ones (Al-Nujaba), while his foes were designated as Satan’s party (Hizb Al-Shaytan). The organization answers directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, while it receives its orders from Qasem Soleimani. The movement was founded by a Shiite cleric by the name of Akram Al-Qa’abi, following the split that occurred with ‘Asaib Ahl el-Haq. Following the civil war in Syria, al-Qa’abi was asked to create a fighting formation. First, he formed the ‘Ammar Ben Yasser Brigade beginning in 2013. After the split, Al-Qa’abi moved to Syria where he founded the Al-Nujaba’ formation, which includes three fighting brigades: ‘Ammar Ben Yasser Brigade, Imam Al-Hassan Al-Mujtaba Brigade and the Al-Hamad Brigade. The military units of Al-Nujaba’ are deployed both in Iraq and Syria (mainly Damascus and Aleppo) and function with full traditional military structures (infantry, armored units, mortar, and artillery). The Nujaba’ has its own weapons production facilities. Recently, the units have integrated into their armory Iranian missiles such a “Fateh” and “Fajr” and UAVs.
The Movement is heavily funded by Iran and relies mainly on Iraqi-Shiite recruits, but in its ranks, there are also Shiite fighters originating from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Egypt.
Al-Nujaba’ existed since the very first days of the civil war in Syria. They participated together with Hizbullah in defense of Al-Qusayr in northern Syria. According to a press report, there were more than 7,000 fighters of Al-Nujaba’ in Syria in the summer of 2016.
Al-Nujaba’ and the Golan Issue
In the course of fall 2016, Iran began contemplating ways to penetrate the Druze hinterland in the south of Syria, specifically in the area of Der’aa and Suweida, bordering the Jordanian border. A delegation of Al-Nujaba’ visited Suweida and met with the local Druze leaders to inquire about the security situation in the area. After a recruiting office was opened by the Zeyn el-Abidine Brigade, a brigade deployed in eastern Syrian (Deir el Zor) and affiliated with Hizbullah, was closed a week later after threats were made against its personnel and rumors circulated that Iran intended to open religious schools (Husseiniyat) in the area on land it bought previously.
By the end of February 2017, the leader of Al-Nujaba’, Akram el-Q’aabi, declared in an unprecedented announcement that his forces were to fight together with the Syrian army to “liberate” the Golan. El-Q’aabi justified his position by stating that the terrorism of ISIS is but a part of a grand plan designed by the Zionists, supervised by the Americans with Turkish-Gulf implementation. Therefore, it was time to decapitate the head of the Zionist snake.
Following this declaration, the Brigade announced in March 2017 the creation of “The Liberation of the Golan Brigade” (Liwa’ Tahrir el-Jolan). The Brigade whose members have fought in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq will have one mission: to assist the Syrian army in liberating its “stolen lands.” According to the spokesman of the Al-Nujaba’, “The creation of this Brigade was but a step towards liberating the holy places in occupied Palestine.”
The Syrian civil war has created chaotic situations unparalleled in the past. The only time a coalition of Arab forces fought other Arab forces was in the course of the Gulf war and the Yemeni conflict. Arab contingents were regular military formations, and the divide between them rested on differing national interests, whereas in the Syrian conflict, militias from almost every place in the world are fighting along and against militias and regular forces based solely on the Sunni-Shiite divide.
The Syrian conflict is being manipulated by foreign powers who are clashing over Syrian territory through the means of proxies, some of them locals and most of them deployed from outside (jihadist Sunni foreign fighters against imported Shiite militias and regular formations). On the one hand, are Assad and his allies led by Iran and Russia, and on the other hand are the rebels assisted by the American-led coalition and Turkey.
As a result, jihadi fighters and rebel factions are coming from more than 80 countries in the world, while Iran concentrates on its human Shiite population. Iran’s foreign legion, described above, is only the tip of the iceberg, but it is proof of that major development. Long time kept under the radar, this deployment of foreign troops would have stayed quiet were it not for the coffins coming back home. In a way, it stresses the fact that Iran remains reluctant to engage its main forces to protect Assad, and left without this choice, Iran had no other option, but to bring into the battlefield other Shiites ready to die for its cause. To paraphrase a very old saying, Iran is ready to fight in Syria until the last non-Iranian Shiite.
To Israeli eyes, the creation of a brigade dedicated to “liberate” the Golan by Iran is a new disturbing development in the area. This brigade would assist the long-time Iranian effort to establish proxies in the Golan facing Israel. Iran has tried to deploy elements of Hizbullah in Syria near the border with little success. It seems now that the Iranian strategy is first to consolidate it forces facing Dar’aa and Suweida in the southern part of Syria before moving forward toward the Israeli border.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.