Early on Friday morning, January 3, 2020, US rocket attacks in Baghdad International Airport killed Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Quds forces of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), with his small entourage. Among those killed was Jamal Jafar Mohammad Ali al Ibrahim, a.k.a. Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, the leader of Kata’ib Hizbullah and deputy chief of the militia group, Popular Mobilization Forces “an Iraqi state-sponsored umbrella organization composed of some 40 militias that are mostly Shia Muslim groups, but also include Sunni Muslim, Christian, and Yazidi groups.” (*) The attack was one of the major developments in the region and an unprecedented move since WWII. Also, it raised a lot of questions about the breach of sovereignty, lack of respect for the international rule of conduct and a brazen disregard for the territorial integrity of Iraq.
The incident caused a lot of reactions from Iran, Iraq and beyond the region. Iran strongly condemned the attack calling it an act of war and vowed to avenge Soleimani’s assassination in an appropriate fashion. Iran also declared three days of national mourning.
In Iraq, the prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi called the assassination of Soleimani an act of aggression against the “Iraqi state, its government, and its people.” (1)
The Iraqi parliament in an unprecedented move overwhelmingly voted for the removal of the US troops from the country.
Two days later Iran launched a salvo of rockets on two US army bases in Iraq, causing extensive damages. At first, the US denied any casualties, but according to the latest US media reports 50 (2) people were injured during the attack due to concussion and the affected personnel was evacuated to Kuwait and Germany.
Iran called the retaliation “a slap in the face” and for now, at least, the two sides have settled down and are on de-escalation mode.
There is no doubt that Qassem Soleimani was an important military figure in Iran and second only to the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. His demise will affect the military and political situation in the region for years to come. We briefly look at his presence and legacy, who he was and what he did, how he propped up the Assad regime in Syria using proxy militias especially the Hazaras of Afghanistan and Iran. He left great scars in the psyche of both friends and foes both with his deeds and misdeeds. He was instrumental in the polarization of the already tense religious and sectarian divisions in the region.
Who was Qassem Soleimani and what did he do?
To some, he was a savior who saved thousands of people from the scourge of ISIS and literally destroyed the so-called Caliphate that symbolized terror and tyranny. To others, he was a villain, a butcher, and a tyrant that destroyed vast areas turning them to a wasteland. Yet, he was just a construction worker from Kirman in southeastern Iran with no proper formal education especially military training and rose to prominence during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. He moved up in the ranks of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) command “because of his ruthlessness and loyalty to the regime’s Supreme Leader.” In 1998, Khamenei appointed him the commander of elite Quds forces that are mostly designed as “the extraterritorial arm of the (IRGC).”
“The terrorist Quds force is a military body founded shortly after the 1979 revolution with the sole purpose of suppressing domestic opposition and waging terrorist wars beyond Iran’s borders.” (3)
He broadened his scope of activities from just fighting inside and outside the country, he took part in large military operations as well as intelligence gathering.
“Since 1998, he was the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ influential Quds Force, the foreign-facing arm of Iran’s security apparatus, melding intelligence work with a military strategy of nurturing proxy forces across the world.” (4)
He was instrumental in preventing Iraq to completely fall in the hands of ISIS. He managed to check ISIS further advances and later stopped ISIS altogether.
“The commander helped direct wars in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen and became the face of Iran’s efforts to build a regional bloc of Shiite power…He also changed the shape of the Syrian civil war, and tightened Iran’s grip on Iraq.” (4)
The genius of Soleimani was that he achieved his objectives not by using Iranian forces, although there were Iranians involved in the fighting in the Syrian war, they were only in a commanding capacity, not foot soldiers. Therefore, the Iranian losses in the wars were relatively negligible compared to others, foreigners or domestics ones. One of the largest and most important contingents of the foreign forces in the Syrian conflict was Hezbollah of Lebanon which Iran managed to encourage through economic incentive to join in the Syrian war to save Bashar al Assad, “2,000 Hezbollah fighters joined the concert in April 2013… Soleimani helped save Assad from his inevitable downfall with no less than 80,000 fighting forces under Quds force’s command and by using brutal tactics and destroying the towns and villages and massacring the civilians.” (3)
Soleimani managed to recruit people from the region mostly Shi’ites from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. “Over the past six years, Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.) has recruited, indoctrinated, trained and deployed thousands of Afghan Shiites to fight under its command against Sunni rebel groups across Syria. The Fatemiyoun Division has about 20,000 active fighters, according to accounts provided by Iranian officials.” (5)
He founded the Fatemiyoun brigade which later grew to a division as the largest group of foreign fighters involved in the war. He also formed Zainabiyoun, and Haideriyoun made up of mostly Pakistani and Iraqi Shi’ites, respectively. By and large, after Hezbollah, the Fatimyoun brigade was the most important force both because of its numbers and also because of its ferocity and sacrifices made in the fighting.
Achievements at what price and at whose expense?
Soleimani relied on forces that Iran had recruited from the region, an almost unlimited supply of raw recruits with no military or fighting background and with no accountability. He used them at will and disposed of them as he pleased. He acted with total impunity.
“He was the godfather of demographic change in Syria … His hallmarks are on every massacre that happened in an area cleared of its people, starting from Homs, Ghouta, Daraa, and Aleppo.” (6)
He plowed through the region destroying everything on the way.
“His proxy militias in Syria and Iraq would pursue their objectives without having any principles or red lines; from massacring and displacing civilians from their towns and villages to dropping conventional or unconventional weapons, including flammable and cluster bombs or chemical weapons on residential areas. “
“Qassem Soleimani had no mercy towards his militias either. He sent thousands of untrained and poor Iraqis, Afghans and Pakistanis to their death in war fronts in Syria by promising money to their families. Soleimani, this “genius war strategist,” learned this tactic during the Iran-Iraq war, while the Iranian regime and the IRGC commanders like Soleimani were dispatching tens of thousands of children in “human waves” to clear minefields with their bodies. This was Soleimani’s tactics and strategy in the war fronts, he compensated the lack of military knowledge and command weakness with “human waves” and massacre of civilians, and by resorting to scorched-earth tactics.” (3)
Consequently, the losses among the foreign forces especially the Fatemiyoun were very high. “Casualties among the Fatemiyoun have been unsettlingly high: ten percent killed and 30 to 40 percent wounded at the estimated peak of 20,000 personnel from 2013 to 2018.” (7)
Some sources put the casualty figures as high as 5,000. “Estimates from Fatemiyoun commanders interviewed for this report indicate that about five thousand fighters had died or disappeared in action since 2013, with another four thousand having been injured. The Quds Force also recruits Fatemiyoun child soldiers.” (8)
How were these fighters recruited?
There is a perception that the Hazaras went to Syria because they believed in the cause and they volunteered to support the Iranian regime in its proxy war in Syria, Iraq or Yemen. In reality, the Hazaras who were sent to Syria were of three groups: One group was lured with the promise of residency, a monthly salary, and education for their children. “In their testimonies to journalists and human rights activists, survivors, and deserters of the Fatemiyoun paint a disturbing picture of recruitment, as well as of life and service in the purported volunteer division. These individuals consistently and independently from one another reported being coerced or bribed into joining…” (9)
“Interviews with Fatemiyoun militants with the Afghan media demonstrate that the I.R.G.C. recruits destitute and undocumented Afghan refugees by offering them permanent residency, financial aid, and other incentives for their families.”(5)
The second group was those that were deportees from Iran who did not want to return to Afghanistan because their families were still in Iran and who had no prospect of returning to Iran. They were recruited either on the border or by the Iranian agents in the camps for returnees. In some cases, they had little choice and as one report put it, they were caught between a rock and hard place. “Hazaras entering Iran are given a choice: Go to jail, face deportation, or fight in the Fatemiyoun Division — an all-Afghan Shiite militia that backs Assad and seems to take on some of the dirty work Iranians in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard don’t touch.” (10) They were given the same promises as to the first group.
The third group was the hardcore believers who went to safeguard the religious shrines, the grand-daughter of Prophet Mohammad, and promote Iranian interest in preserving the regime of Bashar al Assad. This was far and few in numbers and made up of the religious zealots who wanted to fulfill Khomeini’s dream.
The Iranian government, when faced with the criticism of recruiting Shi’ites from the region, does not deny the existence of Fatemiyoun, but it does mention the recruitment of other Afghans. “On both sides of the war front in Syria, foreigner[s] including Afghan nationals, Fatemiyoun have gone to Syria to fight IS terrorists on the basis of their own religious motives and personal initiative. It is bizzare [bizarre] that there is no reaction to the recruitment of Afghan citizens by the IS in West Asia.” (11)
On the surface, the Hazaras went to Syria to safeguard the Shia religious sites. During the years, the clergies sermonized the glory of the cause that the fighters were involved in as a clergy speaking in the funeral of fighters killed in Syria put it:
“These people are defending Hazrat-e-Zainab[Ali’s daughter], Sayed al Shohada[Ali’s son] and Amir al Momenin [Ali himself]. They are changing the course of the history of the region and of the world. Afghan brothers’ Jehad in Syria is the start of the glory of the Islamic world. You should know that those martyrs who are being martyred outside their country are very much different from those who are martyred inside their homeland. These two cannot be compared.” [Inferring that the former are more important than the latter.]
Other religious clerics such as the one in western Kabul who was interviewed by a reporter rejects the idea of safeguarding the religious shrines or religious motives for the war as Muslims were pitted against one another for political ends.
“The fight in Syria is not about the shrines. It is political. That is why going to fight in Syria is not in the least bit in the interest of our people. We do not support Afghans—Shia or non-Shia—to fight in other countries. It is not right for an Afghan Muslim to fight other countries’ wars.” (6)
In reality, most of the people sent to Syria were deployed in every possible front that the regime or its Iranian backers needed far away from the religious sites
“They said that based on their own experience fighting in Syria and information from others who had fought in Syria, Afghan fighters organized and commanded by Iranian military officials were fighting in many areas of Syria, including Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Deir al-Zor, Hama, Lattakia, and in areas near the Syrian border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. They said that their Iranian commanders had forced them to conduct dangerous military operations such as advancing against well-entrenched ISIS military positions with only light automatic weapons and without artillery support. They said that in some instances, Iranian commanders threatened to shoot them if they failed to obey orders to advance under fire.” (12)
The fighters were “… being funneled onto battlefields with little or no preparation; not understanding the context of the war they were fighting; and finally, being expended as cannon fodder in some of the most intense battles of the Syrian war.” (9)
What Next for Iran and its Proxies?
Iran for the moment has achieved its objectives in Syria: propping the Assad regime and at least partial if not total destruction of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. With Soleimani gone the main driving force behind the Iranian achievements is no longer there, but the strategy and objectives of its presence in the region remain intact at least for now. In the case of Fatemiyoun there are a lot of uncertain and unsettling issues that remain unresolved, among them:
Will the Iranians disband the force or will they keep the unit as a potential force for future Iranian adventures in the region especially in Afghanistan?
If and when the Taliban are reinstated in Afghanistan and they move against their former adversaries such as the Hazaras, Tajiks, and Uzbeks, would the Iranians use the Fatemiyoun in Afghanistan to face the Taliban? Will Iran also prop a Tajik force to resist the Taliban onslaught?
If the Taliban supporters such as the US, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia continue to isolate Iran in the region, would Iran use its proxies to face them?
For Hazaras, the Taliban constitute an existential threat. They either resist the Taliban oppression in which case it would be incumbent upon Iran to help them fight for their survival in their direst time of need or given its own interest it would abandon its former proxies to fend for themselves.
All in all, the future looks bleak for the Hazara fighters who risked so much to fight Iran’s war in Syria. If the US and the West continue to embrace the Pashtuns and as a consequence, the Taliban, the non-Pashtuns ethnic groups who have experienced the Taliban archaic and at times genocidal policies towards others, may find their way to a future with a land of their own.
There is no doubt that the Hazaras have been exploited, persecuted, discriminated and marginalized for over two centuries since the coming to power of the Pashtuns with the help of outsiders, mainly the British Raj. If Hazaras are to survive and thrive in a country so hostile to them, they have to play the games as they are played by others. They have to recognize and reduce their vulnerabilities. If they continue in the path of blind faith there is always someone to exploit their beliefs and use them as they fit, like in Syria as cannon fodder. The Pashtuns are being used too, but they get something in return for the sacrifices they make. Taliban, as the proxies of neighboring State, are being used to gain a foothold in Afghanistan against its rivals or adversaries, but they are given a limited reign on power to advance their own objectives.
(1) Robin Wright, “The Killing of Qassem Suleimani Is Tantamount to an Act of War,” The New Yorker, January 3, 2020.
(2) Barbara Star, “50 US service members diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries after Iranian missile strike,” CNN, Jan 28, 2020.
(3) Mohammad Sadat Khansari, “Who Was the Vicious Criminal Qassem Soleimani,” NCRI, January 5, 2020.
(4) Tim Arango, Ronen Bergman, and Ben Hubbard, “Qassim Suleimani, Master of Iran’s Intrigue, Built a Shiite Axis of Power in Mideast,” New York Times, January 13, 2020.
(5) Ahmad Majidyar, “Afghan Official in Deep Water after Praising Role of Soleimani and Shiite Militias in Syria,” MEI, November 29, 2017.
(6) Sarah El Deeb, “Iranian general transformed Syria’s war in Assad’s favor,” AP, January 7, 2020.
(7) Mohsen Hamidi, “The Two Faces of the Fatemiyun (II): The women behind the fighters,” AAN, July 16, 2019.
(8) Ahmad Shuja Jamal, “The Fatemiyoun Army: Reintegration into Afghan Society,” USIP, March 2019.
(9) Tobias Schneider, “The Fatemiyoun Division, ” Middle East Institute, Policy Paper 2018-9, October 2018.
(10) Alex Lockie, “Iran is coercing persecuted Afghan immigrants into fighting ‘as cannon fodder’ in Syria,” Business Insider, August 18, 2016.
(11) Masoud Hamyani, “Afghanistan-Iran relations,” The Pioneer, June 29, 2018.
(12) HRW, “Iran Sending Thousands of Afghans to Fight in Syria,” January 29, 2020.