By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
Iran has opened a new complex to house the families of Afghan fighters killed in the ongoing Syrian war, where Tehran has teamed up with Moscow to help regional ally President Bashar al-Assad counter an armed rebellion.
The rent-free residences on the outskirts of the capital are funded by one of Iran's wealthiest charities, Astan Quds Razavi, which also oversees a major holy shrine in the eastern city of Mashhad, about 200 kilometers from the border with Afghanistan.
Iranian authorities quietly began deploying armed volunteers, including many Afghans, to complement other Iranian forces advising and fighting alongside Assad's troops after civil war broke out in Syria in 2011.
The February 27 opening ceremony of the apartment complex in the town of Bagher Shahr, outside Tehran, was attended by the custodian of Astan Qods Razavi, Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi. Raisi has been tipped by some as a possible future supreme leader, a post that holds ultimate political and religious power in Iran.
"The families of the martyrs who have sacrificed their loved one to defend Islam and the shrines of holy figures should be given priority," Raisi was quoted as saying by Iranian media at the ceremony.
The move is
among the latest acts of support for the families of "martyred shrine defenders"
-- Iranians, Afghans, and Pakistanis -- who have died in the conflict in Syria
and neighboring Iraq. It echoes the type of state assistance provided to
families of Iranians killed in the 1980-88 war with Iraq.
Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi
Iran also uses state media to publicly glorify fallen fighters and highlight their sacrifices while likening them to past "martyrs."
Iranian authorities say the fighters travel to Syria and Iraq voluntarily to defend holy Shi'ite sites. Some reports suggest Afghans are offered financial rewards and residency permits to join the fight in Syria.
The United Nations estimates the number of Afghan citizens in Iran at just under 1 million, but Tehran puts the figure closer to 3 million. Tehran has expelled many Afghans and periodically threatens Kabul with mass expulsions.
Raisi personally handed keys to some of the complex's 36 units to the families of 10 Afghan fighters killed or missing in fighting in Syria. Each key, in a small box, was marked with the name of the family member lost to fighting and the number of the unit where his family would live.
Raisi said the complex had been available and authorities identified families in need to assign them a unit.
Photographs of the event showed the empty apartments decorated with the yellow flag of the Fatemiyoun brigade -- the unit of Afghan militia members said to have been recruited by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
Raisi said offering support to the "families of martyrs" would boost the morale of the "shrine defenders."
"The fact that some leave their country to defend Islam stems from their strong faith and beliefs," he added.
The remainder of the units were distributed among the families of the dead fighters by the leader of Friday Prayers in Bagher Shahr, media reported.
There are no precise figures on the number of Afghans killed in Syria.
Iranian media regularly report on their funerals while offering few details about the circumstances of their deaths.
The head of Iran's Foundation of Martyrs said in November that more than 1,000 fighters deployed by Iran to Syria had been killed.
Ali Alfoneh, a Copenhagen-based independent IRGC specialist, told RFE/RL that at least 580 Afghans had been killed in combat in Syria since January 2012. He recorded 17 Afghan deaths in Syria in February alone.
Alfoneh said that by mobilizing Afghans, Pakistanis, and other Shi'ite fighters, Tehran had managed to not only significantly reduce Iranian losses in Syria but also train "a multinational Shi'ite fighting force capable of fighting future wars by proxy."
Russia, which has conducted an intense bombardment campaign and has a widening
military footprint in Syria, have been major backers of Assad. In addition to
troops, Tehran has helped keep Assad in power through financial assistance.
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