When Abu Fazel listens to news of the civil war still raging in Syria, he thinks about how he very nearly ended up a foot soldier there. But Abu Fazel isn’t Syrian, nor was he ever a would-be Islamic State fighter. He’s an 18-year-old Afghan refugee, living in the small city of Leverkusen, Germany. He spent most of his life in Iran but fled to Germany, rather than be sent to Syria by the Iranian government to fight on the side of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Abu Fazel is one of an unknown number of Afghan teenagers that have been recruited by Iran to fight in Syria’s civil war over the past several years. Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch reported that it had identified the graves of eight Afghan children who had died in Syria, and collected evidence of other teenage recruits, some as young as 14. Conscripting children under the age of 15 as soldiers in active hostilities is a war crime, Human Rights Watch noted.
Abu Fazel was 15 years old when he was set to begin training for Syria. He and Ali, another 18-year-old Afghan refugee living in Germany, told The Intercept about Iranian militias targeting teenagers in immigrant neighborhoods.
“We are cheap cannon fodder for them,” said Ali, which is a pseudonym. The Intercept is also referring to Abu Fazel by only his first name because both youths fear retaliation against their families still living in Iran.
There are an estimated 3 million Afghan refugees in Iran, most of whom get by on black-market jobs and face racism and abuse, as well as scrutiny from the Iranian government. Afghan children often can’t attend school. “Afghan,” Abu Fazel said, is a common slur in Iran, and one he heard too often. “We were second-class citizens,” he said.
Vulnerable Afghan refugees have been prime targets for the Iranian government looking for military manpower in its alliance with Assad, as years of fighting have taken a toll on Iran’s own paramilitary units, like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-controlled Basij militia. Although Assad’s Ba’athist government is nominally secular, Iran has used its self-image as the main representative of Shia Muslims worldwide to frame the conflict as a religious war against Sunni extremists. Many Afghans in Iran are Shia Hazara, a minority group in Afghanistan, and thousands of them have been sent to fight with other Shia fighters from Iraq or Pakistan. Other Afghans were drawn to sign up by the promise of a few hundred dollars a month or obtaining legal immigration status in Iran.