Liwa Fatemiyoun (Arabic: لِوَاء الْفَاطِمِيُّون, romanized: Liwā’ al-Fāṭimīyūn, Persian/Dari: لواء فاطمیون or لشکر فاطمیون), literally "Fatimid Banner", also known as Fatemiyoun Division, Fatemiyoun Brigade, or Hezbollah Afghanistan, is an Afghan Shia militia formed in 2014 to fight in Syria on the side of the Syrian government.
It is funded, trained, and equipped by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and fights under the command of Iranian officers. However, the group has denied direct Iranian government involvement in its activities. By late 2017, the unit numbered between 10,000–20,000 fighters. According to Zohair Mojahed, a cultural official in the group, the group has suffered 2,000 killed and 8,000 wounded in combat in Syria from its establishment up to the end of 2017.
The core of Liwaa Fatemiyoun is constituted of the fighters of the Shia militia group Muhammad Army (سپاه محمد) which was active during the Soviet–Afghan War and against the Taliban, until its collapse after the Invasion of Afghanistan, as well as the Abuzar Brigade, an all-Afghan Shia militia group who voluntarily fought in the Iran–Iraq War. During the Iran–Iraq war, these fighters were stationed in the mountainous areas of Loolan and Navcheh in the northwestern Iran, as they had experience in mountain warfare and irregular warfare during the war against the Soviets.
The group's official purpose is the defense of the shrine of Zaynab bint Ali, the granddaughter of Prophet Muhammad. However, it has fought on active frontlines around Daraa, Aleppo, and Palmyra. In October 2014, three fighters were captured by the rebel Islamic Front. Their fates are unknown. On 7 May 2015, Iran commemorated 49 fighters of the group who were killed. According to Spiegel Online, 700 members of the group are believed to have been killed in combat around Daraa and Aleppo as of June 2015. The Washington Institute estimated at least 255 casualties between January 19, 2012 and March 8, 2016. In March 2016, they fought in the recapture of Palmyra from the Islamic State.
In August 2016, Iranian official Qurban Ghalambor was arrested by the Afghan government for recruiting fighters for the brigade.
In 2017, the unit helped countering a major rebel offensive in northern Hama Governorate, and later aided a pro-government offensive in the Syrian Desert that aimed at reaching the Iraqi border. In course of the latter campaign, Mohammad Hosseini (also known as "Salman") was killed as he stepped on an anti-personnel mine. Hosseini had served as the intelligence chief of Liwa Fatemiyoun's Hazrat-e Fatemeh Zahra Brigade. Following the successful conclusion of this offensive, the Liwa Fatemiyoun took part in the campaign to capture all of central Syria from ISIL. Anwar Yawri, another commander of Liwa Fatemiyoun, was killed during these operations. As of July, 2017, the militia lost some 600 men fighting in Syria. The unit later took part in the Eastern Syria campaign (September–December 2017), and helped to break ISIL's siege on Deir ez-Zor.
On 21 November 2017, Iran declared victory over ISIL, and subsequently started to downsize Liwa Fatemiyoun. The first troops to be demobilized were the youngest and oldest, as well as those who had exhibited problematic behavior such as indiscipline. The demobilized fighters were sent back to Iran to return to their families and civilian life. In course of the COVID-19 pandemic, Liwa Fatemiyoun reportedly began to produce masks and gloves in Iran and Syria, intending to distribute them to poor Syrians. Western observers suspected that this was supposed to boost the group's image and help it in recruiting new members. By late 2020, Liwa Fatemiyoun was still operating in eastern Syria, though only about 500 to 1,500 fighters strong.
Experts differ on what role Liwa Fatemiyoun was fulfilling as of 2020, as the Syrian government had become relatively secure. Researcher Phillip Smyth argued that Liwa Fatemiyoun was supposed to act as Iran's "phantom force" of trained foreign soldiers, ready to be used for possible future interventions. Accordingly, Symth and ex-Herat Province governor Abdul Qayoum Rahim argued that Liwa Fatemiyoun had already begun deployment to other regions such as Yemen, Bahrain and Iraq, and was possibly prepared for an intervention in Afghanistan. Symth and Rahim also claimed that the constant fighting had turned Liwa Fatemiyoun into an elite force, as most of its less capable fighters had been killed or demobilized, leaving only the most experienced and radical ones. Other security analysts argued that there was no evidence for further mass foreign deployments, and that Liwa Fatemiyoun was overall dimishing in numbers and suffering from low morale, as the Iranian government had slow in granting promised benefits to its fighters.
Organization, supplies and equipment
Liwa Fatemiyoun is led by IRGC commanders and supplied by the Iranian military, while its troops are recruited from the approximately 3 million Afghans in Iran, as well as Afghan refugees already residing in Syria. The recruits are typically Hazara, an ethnic group from central Afghanistan. The Iranian recruiters for Liwa Fatemiyoun are usually members of the Basij.
The Afghans are promised Iranian citizenship and salaries of $500–$800 per month in return for fighting (usually a 3-month-long deployment to Syria). Many are refugees and some criminals who choose recruitment over imprisonment or deportation, though the Iranian government generally claims that they are religiously motivated volunteers. The first Liwa Fatemiyoun troops sent to Syria were told that they were fulfilling their "Islamic duty" by defending the shrines of Damascus. Iranian media has claimed that the Iranian military provides Liwa Fatemiyoun fighters and their IRGC officers with Hashish to raise their morale. After completing their service, many ex-Liwa Fatemiyoun fighters were frustrated that the Iranian government proved slow in fulfilling all their demands; most importantly, fighters struggled to secure the promised benefits such as salaries, housing, and jobs due to Iran's difficult economic situation and cases of Iranian officials stalling in regards to payouts. The families of fallen fighters have also struggled to secure benefits and visas.
Though some Afghan sub-commanders of Liwa Fatemiyoun are veterans of several wars, including the Iran–Iraq War and the Afghan Civil War (1996–2001), new recruits of the unit generally lack combat experience. The recruits are given just a few weeks of training, armed, and flown to Syria via the Iraq–Syria–Iran air bridge. These soldiers are used as shock troopers, spearheading numerous important pro-government offensives alongside Iranian, Iraqi, and Hezbollah troops. Most of them operate as light infantry, although some receive more thorough training and can work as tank crews. Parts of Liwa Fatemiyoun have been trained by the Russian Armed Forces. As the unit is often used in those war zones where the most intense fighting takes place despite its sometimes inadequate training, observers believe that Liwa Fatemiyoun fighters often act as "cannon fodder". By 2020, analysts such as Philip Symth argued that the "cannon fodder" troops of the unit had been mostly weeded out, leaving only a hardened core of fighters.
Accusations of war crimes
According to Human Rights Watch, Liwa Fatemiyoun has recruited child soldiers, some of whom were as young as 14. Pro-Syrian opposition media has claimed, based on photographs, that Liwa Fatemiyoun fighters use Sarin gas grenades.
Designation as terrorist organization
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