The fact that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) has been sending thousands of Afghans to fight on behalf of Bashar al Assad is well documented. These hastily trained Afghan refugees and migrants are sometimes coerced into joining the fight and are used as first-wave attack forces.
These fighters have participated in most major battles in Syria, including the latest siege of Aleppo in which, if you judge by semi-official Iranian social media propaganda, they played key offensive roles.
There has been some limited reporting from the BBC and Human Rights Watch about the ages of these fighters. We’ve seen former fighters describe themselves as 16- and 17-year-olds. But now, we have virtually verifiable evidence from the Iranian media about a 16-year-old Afghan who was deployed to fight in Syria in 2014.
Rohullah Bakhtiari (pictured) was given a 45-day training course and deployed as part of the Afghans-only Fatemiyoun Brigade. The Tehran-based Farsi-language Quds newspaper published a puff piece cum interview with Bakhtiari this morning glorifying his feat. Bakhtiari describes his parents’ initial resistance and how he received official permission from authorities despite his age:
The deployment of the sixth cohort was fast approaching and I couldn’t resist it anymore. Amid shock and surprise from my parents, I asked their permission to join the protectors of the Shrine, but it was met with opposition from my father and, more intensely, my mother.
After 45 days of training, we entered Syria on an (armored) personnel carrier and, after participating in minor operations, made it to the major operation. And [it was like this] that permission was issued for a 16-year-old to participate [in the fight].
The article goes on to describe how he was injured and rescued by his fellow Afghan fighters.
It is difficult to estimate the number of underage Afghans fighting in Syria, but former fighters have described the number of Afghan combatants as being in the thousands.
Iranian authorities deny they are sending Afghans to fight in Syria in any official capacity. The Afghan foreign ministry promised last year to probe reports of Iran recruiting Afghan refugees, but it has not said anything since. However, former fighters have told the media and human rights organizations that IRGC trained and deployed them. Stories on the social media accounts of some of these fighters speak of battlefield visits they received from Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, which is responsible for international military operations. Iranian officials are also frequently seen attending funerals of Afghan fighters killed in Syria.