“Originally styled as a small detachment of volunteers and refugees mobilized to defend the shrine of Sayyeda Zeinab outside Damascus, the Fatemiyoun formation’s size and presence across Syria has slowly expanded throughout the war. At home, the IRGC began cultivating a narrative of Afghan “resistance” to transnational Sunni jihadism. Joining the Syrian jihad was increasingly promoted as a path to legal and social recognition within the Islamic Republic at a time when thousands of desperate young Hazaras were setting out to emigrate to Europe.”
The Fatemiyoun Division has been studied by Tobias Schenider in his paper issued by the Middle East Institute of New York. The author notes that Fatemiyoun’s recent role in the Syrian civil war, and the impact its Syrian jihad has had on the Hazara community in Iran as well as transnational militancy in Afghanistan is worth studying about.
Schneider believes that “As the Syrian conflict winds down, the future of the Fatemiyoun as a fighting force remains unclear. But even if the formation were to be disbanded, the networks, narratives, and capabilities developed in Syria could help the IRGC raise a similar formation again in the future.”
The Fatemiyoun Division is an Iranian-led Shi‘i militia active in Syria composed primarily of ethnic Hazara residents in Iran. It was founded in the early 1980s by Afghan devotees of Ayatollah Khomeini, and the division and its precursors have fought in the Iran-Iraq War and Afghan civil war before recently re-emerging as part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ expeditionary force in Syria, points Schneider.
Division members were largely recruited from among “Iran’s large and disenfranchised Afghan refugee population”, as well as potential fighters who were ‘enticed’ to join the division with promises of generous pay, legal residency, and social status upon return. Schneider also cites a third source of recruitment- coercion- with forcing people into joining with threats of arrest and deportation.
Schneider studied the survivor accounts, which indicated that they the Fatemiyoun fighters are “often mentally and tactically unprepared for combat, leading to outsized casualty rates, as the division is deployed along the most dangerous front lines, operating heavy weapons such as tanks and artillery.”
What’s their status in the eyes of Kabul administration? The Afghan government has outlawed the group at home due to concerns of spillover effects, but “evidence suggests clandestine IRGC recruitment continues still”, Shneider explains.
In the paper, it has been observed that in a span of three years, the IRGC was able to set up and mobilize a militia with several thousand fighters by drawing on a “dedicated but long- dormant core of militants for leadership and large vulnerable social strata for recruits.”
What’s conceded by Schneider is that, if the IRGC wants to demobilise the Fatemiyoun, there is always the chance to “re-create the experiment”, thus indicating that the IRGC has temporarily frozen recruitment to slowly decrease the troop level. But have the former or current recruits been given a home? In Schneider’s findings, “there is no evidence that Afghans affiliated with the Fatemiyoun Division are made to—or even allowed to—settle in Syria as part of a sectarian re-engineering scheme. There are also no signs of an imminent redeployment to Yemen, the Golan, or any other tense conflict zone”.