President Barack Obama announced this week that US combat operations in Afghanistan will draw to a close at the end of the year, leaving open the possibility of 9,800 troops remaining in the country if Kabul and Washington are able to ink a new security deal.
But Tehran has its own plans for Afghanistan, report DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards are building a 50,000-strong Shiite army with recruits from the 800,000 stateless Afghan refugees sheltering in Iran from the war in their country. The recruits are being trained in purpose-built Iranian camps for another conflict, the bloody Syrian war.
Around one-fifth of all Afghans, or 5-6 million of the total population of 32 million, are Shiites. This proportion is replicated in the refugee community.
Tehran also has its eye on the million Afghan Shiite refugees granted asylum in Pakistan for its new legion; recruiting agents have been sent across into Afghanistan itself. Tehran is bending all its resources to fill in the thinning ranks of Bashar Assad’s army, which is depleted by more than three years of combat.
Assad’s army overstretched by multiple warfronts
Iran’s Middle East commander, Al Qods Brigades chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani, was in Damascus this week to discuss the crisis with the Syrian president. New conscription petered out two years ago, and the Syrian army, albeit augmented by Hizballah, finds itself dueling it out on multiple fronts, with insufficient fighting personnel to hold current lines.
When the Syrian army is forced to redeploy units between the different fronts, it often loses terrain and strategic positions as rebels swarm into the gaps.
Obama’s latest policy revision which aims to offer military training to moderate Syrian rebels, and arm them with advanced weapons smuggled via Jordan and Turkey, adds to the pressures piling up on Assad’s overstretched military.
While the Iranians are mining Afghan Shiite communities to reinforce Assad’s army, the US is tapping into the nearly 2 million refugees – most of them Sunni Muslims – who fled the Syrian war to safe haven in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and the Gulf.
The two camps are consequently pumping up two deadly opposed Muslim belligerent forces for an epic sectarian collision on the battlefields of Syria.
Afghan refugees lured by pay checks, permanent status
This won’t be the first paramilitary legion Gen. Soleimani has raised to fight for Assad.
From late 2012, he oversaw the work of 5,000 Iranian military and advisers, who are still in Syria, for pulling together a 55,000-strong Syrian People’s Army, made up entirely of shabiba militiamen.
But its numbers have fallen steeply, because this force commands a small pool for recruitment; Assad’s Alawite sect is a minority of only 10 percent, or 2.5 million, of Syria’s total population.
Tehran’s next device for filling the Syrian army’s diminishing ranks was to import Iraqi Shiite militiamen, most members of Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM), to fight alongside a sizeable increment of Hizballah paramilitaries. Together, they accounted roughly for an extra 15,000 fighting men.
To lure Afghans into fighting for their Syrian ally, the Iranians are offering a monthly $500 wage to be paid out to their relatives and assigning their families official refugee status. Until now, the bulk of the Afghan refugee population in Iran was denied this status and so forfeited international aid. But young Afghans willing to join up for Syria are now offered permanent residency papers when the war is over.
Full-scale collision between Sunnis and Shiites
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources predict that Iran’s success in scraping together a large new Shiite force for Syria in the coming two years has the potential for changing the strategic face of the entire region in four ways:
1. Tehran would have at its fingertips a large Shiite army of 400,000 foreign fighters, including Hizballah and the other nationals raised for the Syrian war. This force could grow to more than half a million.
2. This army’s immediate objectives would be to win the Syrian war for Assad and curb al Qaeda’s swelling strength in Syria and Iraq. However, Western, Arab and Israeli intelligence foresee the Shiite force standing at Tehran’s disposal for making war on Israel, fighting in Yemen for the Iran-backed Huti rebels, and any other mission on the Islamic Republic’s agenda.
3. The Shiite army would enforce the Shiite Hizballah’s ambition to rule Lebanon supreme.
4. Such major troop movements would alter the demographic balance of several countries in the region. A large influx of Shiite Afghan refugees from Iran, Pakistan and their homeland flooding into Iraq, Syria and Lebanon could push these countries over into a Shiite majority.
After more than three years, the Syrian conflict can no longer be rated a civil war. Its wide repercussions have transformed it into a wholly regional conflict, which threatens to engulf the Middle East and make it the arena for a full-scale sectarian collision between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam.