Liwa Fatemiyoun (لواء الفاطميون)

On January 13, an extensive airstrike was carried out in the Al-Bukamal, Al-Mayadin, and Deir Ez-Zur area. According to official Syrian sources, this was an Israeli attack. The main Shiite militia deployed in this area is Fatemiyoun Militia. The region is considered a strategic geographical component in the ground corridor of the radical Shiite axis headed by Iran.The attached article by Dr. Shimon Karmi details who is The Fatemiyoun Militia.

Liwa Fatemiyoun is a veteran militia that was deployed by Iran in the 80s in the war against Soviet Russia to stop its conquer of Afghanistan and later deployed in the Iran-Iraq war. It is comprised of thousands of Shi’ite Afghanistan combatants and has been deployed in many different forms and methods until it was declared an active militia that will aid Assad’s army in the war in 2014. Its founder is named Ali Reza Tavassoli. Its recruits are Afghani refugees in Iran, some of them forced to enlist in order to receive legal residency status in Iran. The militia was deployed in many significant and bloody battles in Syria, such as the ones in Aleppo, Daraa, and Palmyra. Recently, it was posted across from Israel’s Golan Heights. The militia has close to 4,000 combatants and has sustained heavy casualties in its wars, more than any other militia in Syria. The militias commanders have been killed one after the other as well, and the case being so, the militia command was transferred directly to the Quds Force officers.

Liwa Fatemiyoun’s (also known as “Hezbollah Afghanistan”) establishment was an initiative taken by Kassem Soleimani in May 2013, fighting in the war in Syria ever since 2014. Its founders are Ali Reza Tavassoli (as mentioned before) and Sheikh Mohammad Baqer al-Alawi. It was established following Mosul’s (city in northern Iraq) collapse, to alleviate the Shi’ite Iraqi combatant’s shortage of manpower fighting ISIS and other Salafi organizations in Syria. Its primary objective was to defend Al-Sayeda Zainab.

During its war with Afghanistan in the 80s, the militia was also known as “Muhammad Arm”. Its duty was like that of the Abuzar Brigade, which volunteered to fight Afghanistan in opposition to Soviet Russia’s conquest (1979-1989). Later on, Grand Ayatollah Khomeini recruited Muhammad Arm for the Iran-Iraq war. At the end of the war, the militia was returned to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban. As a result of the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Muhammad Arm fell apart because many of its combatants fled to Iran, fearing persecution by the new pro-American Afghanistan authority. The militia provided the foundation for the eventual establishment as Liwa Fatemiyoun. At the start of the civil war in Syria in 2011, Tavassoli requested assistance from Iran and its Afghanistan combatants by them entering Syria and defending the holy Shi’ite sites. Iran heeded his request and entered Syria. The militia then fought alongside the Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada militia, a faction that split from the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia that has been fighting in Syria since the summer of 2013. Tavassoli succeeded in recruiting many Afghanistan combatants, some of them from Iran and others from Damascus. In 2014, Liwa Fatemiyoun was deployed by Iran in Syria to fight alongside the Syrian army against Sunni Jihad organizations. Eventually, the militia became a large, independent militia brigade under the IRGC’s command, with thousands of combatants.

According to the militia’s propaganda agenda, the purpose of its deployment by Iran was to defend Al-Sayeda Zainab. In reality, it served in many other battles all over Syria alongside Assad’s regime, such as Hama, Daraa, the Damascus area, Aleppo, in the villages Nubl, Zahraa, Homs, Deir Ez-Zur (particularly near the Al Bukamal border), Hama, Latakia and areas near Israel’s Golan Heights. The militia has military bases in Aleppo, Hama, Latakia, Damascus, and Homs. At the height of the war in 2015, the militia had an estimated 3,000-4,000 combatants deployed in Syria.

The militia sustained heavy losses during its battles in Syria. For example, Der Spiegel magazine estimated that during the militia’s battles against ISIS in Daraa and Aleppo, approximately 700 combatants were killed. Hundreds of its combatants were killed in the battle in the Al Bukamal border area. According to the magazine, no other militia deployed in Syria was involved in so many key battles as Liwa Fatemiyoun was. The death toll, estimated at over 1,000, indicates the militia’s intense involvement in the battles in opposition to the rebels’ attacks in the “hottest” areas, to the point of them being cannon fodder for the Syrian army. Apparently, the IRGC buried them in Iran as martyrs to make their deaths significant.

Liwa Fatemiyoun is slightly different from other Shi’ite militias regarding the chain of command. The militia lost many of its commanders one after the other, in battle or by elimination. Tavassoli’s deputy, Reza Bakhshi, who was born and raised in Iran, was killed on February 18th, 2015. Tavassoli himself was killed in southern Daraa in May 2015 in a battle with Jabhat al-Nusra, a Salafi militia. There’s more – Mohammed Hussein Hosseini, assistant to Tavassoli, also nicknamed “Sayd Hakhim, was killed in December 2016 by an explosive planted on the highway east of Palmyra. On July 8th, 2017, the “Russia Today” website reported Ali Jafari’s, a Liwa Fatemiyoun commander, death. We do not have any details regarding its cause. Since the commanders’ deaths, Quds Force officers have taken direct command of the militia.

The militia is known not only for its size compared to other militias but also for it being comprised of combatants from weak populations that were recruited against their will. The militia is comprised of Shi’ites from Afghanistan, primarily from the Hazaras ethnic group. This is a Shi’ite group mainly from the Twelver Shia Group, Persian speakers in the Hazaras dialect, and account for 95 of Afghanistan’s population, in other words, 3.15 million people that live mainly in the heart of the country, in the Hazaristan area but also in Iran and Pakistan. The Hazaras are the poorest Shi’ite minority in Afghanistan.

The IRGC recruited thousands of Afghani refugees living in Iran to fight in Syria, ever since 2013. According to a Human Rights Watch correspondent, several of the recruits claimed they were forced to enlist. Iran beseeched Afghanistan to defend the holy Shi’ite sites, promising monetary compensation and legal residency in Iran to convince them to join. According to Syrian opposition websites’ reports, the majority of the militia’s combatants are Afghanistan refugees living in Iran, illegally in most of the cases, who were recruited by the IRGC in exchange for a 500 dollar-per-month salary (considered high in Iran), death gratuity payments to their families should the need arise, and correction of their legal status in Iran.

Iran is home to approximately 3 million Afghanistan people, most of them refugees who fled their country. Only 950,000 of them were recognized as legal refugees. Iran limits the number of refugees given legal status and allows many who are still undecided to stay in Iran, although these people are undocumented and have a temporary visa. The funerals of the combatants killed in Syria frequently take place in Iran with the attendance of Iranian officials. While Iran officially states that thousands of the Afghanistan refugees in Iran volunteered for the militia, it is known that their fragile legal status and their fear of deportation are likely factors of their decision to enlist. Many of the recruits claim that the threat of arrest and compulsory recruitment were the deciding factors of this decision. They stated that their training took place in military bases near Tehran and Shiraz in 2015. The “volunteers” were sent to a military training base named “Padegan-e Shahid Pazouki” in Varamin, 60 kilometers south of Tehran, to train with Pakistani, Arab, and other volunteers. After only 19 days of training, they were flown to Damascus and visited Al-Sayeda Zainab for their first time. They joined Liwa Fatemiyoun in Aleppo and received a 2 million tomans-a-month salary (roughly $475) and an extra 650,000 tomans for 21 vacation days. As mentioned before, Quds Force officers commanded and supervised the militia, including their station near Israel’s Golan Heights.

There are testimonies to the fact that the Iranian commanders forced recruits to perform dangerous military operations, such as storming well-fortified ISIS posts with nothing more than automatic rifles, and even without any artillery support. In some cases, the Iranian commanders threatened to shoot them if they will not follow those orders. There are even reports of children being recruited to the militia. International law forbids government authorities and armed non-government authorities from recruiting and deploying children under the age of 18. In the past few years, Iranian officials began limiting the legal options for the refugees to request asylum in the country, even as the circumstances in Afghanistan continued spiraling downward. This policy greatly endangers the refugees that are not part of the minority that was recognized in the past as one and makes them vulnerable to the threats of deportation as well as being forced to fight in Syria.

Liwa Fatemiyoun became an integral part of the Quds Force. This is apparent by the fact that Quds Force officers, even the mid-rank ones, were blamed for the militia’s deaths. For example, there are reports of the militia going on co-op missions with the IRGC’s unmanned aircraft unit in the campaign near the Al-Bukamal border crossing. In a video that was published by Al-Manar, Hezbollah’s television network, an ISIS post is attacked by an unmanned aircraft and by the militia’s combatants simultaneously. The “Sky News” channel reported unmanned aircrafts attacking pro-Iranian Shi’ite militia posts in the Al-Bukamal area. According to the report, 5 militia combatants were killed in the attack, and 9 others were injured. According to a report by the Syrian Revolutionary Forces’ Department of Information” on August 16th, 2018 (Free Syrian Army – Rebels), a number of the militia’s combatants killed by the “unknown” fighter jets that attacked them near Al-Bukamal in the eastern neighborhood Deir Ez-Zur. Pirat Post reported on Facebook that 6 of the militia’s combatants were killed from “unknown” raids on their artillery post near the “Plane Square” at the Euphrates Beach in Al Bukamal. According to the report, “Combined Joint Task Force” planes have been recently attacking Assad’s forces and militias in areas on the east bank of the Euphrates River, east of Deir Ez-Zur. Attacks on Liwa Fatemiyoun attest to its presence in the areas under attack and to the importance attributed to it by the attacking forces, as a representative of Iran on the battlefield.

As part of the dwindling of the intensity of the battles in Syria, pro-Iran militias began returning to their countries, although we do not have details regarding the numbers. Even if we assume that half of them returned, we are still left with nearly 2,000 combatants (after the subtraction of the number of casualties sustained) still operating in Syria, in their respective areas. We did not find testimonies or documents declaring the future deployment of the militia against Israel. On the other hand, their stationing at only a few kilometers near Israel’s Golan Heights prevents us from abandoning this possible Iranian intent. Therefore, we consider the militia a threat to Israel’s security in the Golan Heights, and it is important to take the militia into account as a force that the IDF may have to contend with if the situation escalates.

The first of the militia groups that left Syria returned to Iran, as per Soleimani’s wish to aid Iran with dealing with the big floods that have been plaguing the country since March 2019. Al-Nujaba members were the first to go, others following them. Their arrival was ill met by the Iranian citizens, who reacted violently in their protests of the dire financial situation in Iran. Some even claim the citizens feared the militias would quash any hopes of effecting change in the government.

As a result of many Liwa Fatemiyoun combatants’ return to Iran, influential Afghan figures had mixed emotions. On one hand, Afghanistan’s forces persecuted the militia’s combatants for fear they will destabilize the country. On the other hand, members of elite Afghan Shi’ite groups, that do not have ties to the government and are only focused on their own interests, have a different view. The presence of war veterans in Syria, in their view, will have a positive effect on Afghanistan’s internal strifes because they will be able to bring their own military experience to the war against the Taliban, ISIS, or other Sunni Jihad militant factions.

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Picture of Dr. Shimon Karmi

Dr. Shimon Karmi

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