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Human Rights Watch says Iran has sent thousands of Afghan refugees to fight in Syria, including children as young as 14. We speak to journalist and author Emran Feroz.

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AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. There are about 3 million Afghan refugees living in Iran. But according to Human Rights Watch, thousands of them have been sent to fight in Syria as part of the Iranian Campaign there to defend the Syrian government. This group is said to include children as young as 14. Last month Humans Right Watch said it’s identified 8 Afghan children who apparently fought and died and Syria. Iranian recruiters have allegedly offered refugee conscripts legal status to help entice them to join the campaign. The use of child soldiers is a war crime under international law. Joining me is Emran Feroz, journalist and author, Focusing on the Middle East, Afghanistan, and War on Terror. He is founder of Drone Memorial, a virtual memorial for civilian drone strike victims. His recent piece for The Intercept is Iran is Sending Afghan Children to Fight for Assad in Syria. Welcome Emran, can you talk about what you found? You interviewed some refugee children, now in Germany, but who were recruited to join the fight in Syria? EMRAN FEROZ: Actually, first, thanks for having me. And yes, Emran. I am focusing on this issue since a couple of years now. In fact, since the war in Syria began, it became very quickly clear that there are also a lot of foreign militias fighting on the side of Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad. And in Afghanistan and also among the Afghan community it was well known that Afghan refugees are being sent from Iran to fight in Syria. And also different Syrian rebel groups caught a lot of Afghan fighters, they were first to fall pretty much confused who these guys are, but when they checked their documents, they saw that they are Afghans. Recently I met some Afghan refugees in Germany, and the surprising thing for many people here was the fact that they did not flee from the war in Afghanistan, but they did flee from the Iranian regime because they wanted to prevent recruiting and being sent to Syria to fight there. And the people I met were children when this happened. AARON MATÉ: How many people did you meet who have fled Iran because they didn’t want to go fight in Syria? EMRAN FEROZ: Our recent article, I particularly interviewed 2 young men in detail. Generally speaking, I met a couple of dozen Afghan refugees from Iran who said that they have been recruited to fight in Syria. AARON MATÉ: And they all said that they had fled Iran to avoid going to Syria? EMRAN FEROZ: Of course. You know, in many cases the recruitment had already been taking place and it was already fixed that they had to go to Syria because, you know, generally Afghan refugees in Iran are living a very desperate life there. Most of them are living there illegally, they face a lot of racism, discrimination, also institutional race doesn’t by, in state itself. Yeah, they’re in a very exploitative situation, and the Iranian government is using this, it’s abusing the situation and telling them things like, “You know what? Go to Syria and fight there for us, and at the end we will get documents for your family members. Or your wife, or your children and then you can ensure the future of your family in Iran by doing that.” AARON MATÉ: Okay, so here’s my problem with this a little bit. Using children in war, as we said, is a war crime, right. But at the same time, I don’t want to hold Iran to a higher standard than anybody else. In the US for example, immigrants join the US Army to get status here, and it’s a cynical tactic, but I want to point out that it is done around the world. Unless you think then that the case of Iran it’s particularly untoward. EMRAN FEROZ: Yeah, of course, I mean we can say that different states, different local players, different institutions all over the globe are doing this, but I think that in the context of Syria, why there should be problem to point at this? AARON MATÉ: No. I’m not saying there’s a problem pointing at it. I’m just saying … My only concern about anything to do with Iran, especially in the US media, is when it’s held to a different standard than everybody else because that can be used to contribute to the demonization of Iran. The war mongering against it that’s been going on for a long time, and especially accelerated under President Trump. EMRAN FEROZ: Yes. Of course, that’s understandable too, but I think that, as I said, especially in the case of Syria, the Iranian government contributed a lot of bad things there. One of the main supporters of the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. And we all know, according to all human rights and service, Assad regime killed the most people in Syria. Not even ISIS, Al-Qaeda, all these group, nobody killed that many people than the Assad regime. And the Iranian’s, or let’s say the Iranian government of course, they are supporting this regime. I think you don’t really have people may they be Afghans or Syrians, or whatever, if you try to think too much about the general warmongering against Iran, but because in this case, Iran is absolutely guilty. And this doesn’t mean that we now have to bump Iran, of course not. But, this is just describing a reality, which is taking place. AARON MATÉ: Okay. And so this gets into the very fraught issue of the Syrian war and who’s backing who, and who’s in there and why they’re in there. But let me ask you, you’re obviously very critical of Iran being inside Syria. If you were Iran, what would you have done? Can you see why they claim to at least have some rational, national security interest in wanting to fight to defend the Assad regime? As murderous as that regime is, but given the threats that they face from the US, and Israel, and Saudi Arabia, why they felt compelled to intervene on behalf of a key ally in the region for them? EMRAN FEROZ: Yeah, you know, this now sounds a bit cynical to me. If you ask me if I were Iran would I have been done, because of course, we can talk about all this. The narratives of the Syrian war, we can talk about all this geopolitics, but I think this is definitely not an excuse for using child soldiers, for using militias, for abusing actually refugees. We know that this is also taking place on the other side, but why should we just talk about one side? I personally, I make this experience personally here in Europe, you might know, that many Syrian refugees are living here, and a lot of them, when I actually met them and when I start talking with them, and when I said I’m Afghan, they were very, very suspicious at the beginning. When I talked more with them, they were like, “You know, why are you guys in our country and supporting Assad?” I was like, “Wait a moment. Don’t be so emotional.” And I tried to describe what is going on, and how Iran is using these Afghan refugees. I mean, there is also a lot of anger on the Syrian side against the Afghan community, or Afghans in general because, you know, of course many people in Syria are not aware of the situation in Afghanistan and Iran, and then suddenly they see Afghans fighting in Aleppo and for them, they are just in waivers. For that reason, I think there’s definitely no excuse for Iran and what it is doing there. AARON MATÉ: Certainly no excuse to use child soldiers. I guess the problem for me is … EMRAN FEROZ: Not just child soldiers. Also, you know… AARON MATÉ: Okay. So let me ask you then, if you were Iran what would you have done? EMRAN FEROZ: Yeah, okay, but this question is like, if I were Saudi Arabia, what would I do in Syria? I mean … AARON MATÉ: Who entered Syria first? Who entered Syria first? EMRAN FEROZ: I don’t (crosstalk) question. You know… AARON MATÉ: Who… Sorry, go ahead. EMRAN FEROZ: Sorry? AARON MATÉ: So listen, in an ideal world everybody would have stayed out of Syria. I think we can agree on that, right? EMRAN FEROZ: Yeah. AARON MATÉ: But again, the problem I have, the question I personally can’t answer is, if I was Iran what would I have done? Seeing a critical ally… Yeah, sorry, go ahead. EMRAN FEROZ: So, you’d send the Afghan refugees to Iran. AARON MATÉ: No. No, we agree. There’s no defense of that at all. EMRAN FEROZ: Yeah. AARON MATÉ: I was speaking to the broader issue of what Iran should have done when an ally, that it needs, or that it’s relied on, at least, was being threatened. EMRAN FEROZ: Of course, I mean, but you know generally speaking, again, the Assad regime committed the most crimes in Syria. Do you agree with this or not? AARON MATÉ: I do. I certainly do. They, they’re, for the majority of the conflict, they’ve been the dominant air power, and they’ve waged a brutal campaign to defeat the rebels, but again… EMRAN FEROZ: Yeah, most… AARON MATÉ: I want to say one thing, though. Do they lose the right to wage that campaign because they’re a dictatorship? The reason I ask that is because there was a proxy war inside Syria, and we do know now, just last week, or two weeks ago, we had a leak from Edward Snowden saying that the Saudi monarchy ordered a missile attack in March 2013 on Damascus. So my question is, I mean, does the Assad regime have the right to defend itself against that, or do they lose all rights to defend itself? EMRAN FEROZ: Of course not, but does Iran have this right? I mean, of course, Syria is a proxy war, Syria is a civil war, many different countries are involved in this conflict, and we also know this. But, the question is, if the involvement of one state or global player does excuse the actions of another player, which is excused then? For example, in this case, Iran. AARON MATÉ: It’s not about excusing it, but in my eyes it’s about understanding it. And the question that I posed about what I would have done if I were Iran, is something, to me, is hard to answer because I think that they are in a very difficult position. But Let’s go back to the children. So, Humans Rights Watch identified 8 Afghan children who were killed in Syria. Do you think that the number, that that’s an accurate number? And the children who you spoke to, what are their concerns and their fears for their relatives maybe who might still be fighting in Syria? EMRAN FEROZ: Yeah, of course the number is very low. We have heard about 8 cases from Human Rights Watch, as you just said. In reality, I believe that the number is much higher because much more children, generally much more Afghans have been recruited. I mean, according to Iranian State Media itself, at least 20,000 Afghan fighters are fighting in Syria at the moment. And among them are many children because those who recruit these Afghan refugees, which are the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and the infamous Basij militia. They do not care about the age of the people they recruit. You know the recruitment is generally taking place in big cities like Tehran, or Mashhad. These big cities have also huge Afghan neighborhoods full with Afghan refugees and these areas are the targets of the recruiters. They go to local mosques and they gather young men around them, teenagers, and they start speaking about the war in Syria. They say that, “This is a war where we have to defend Shia Islam against Sunni Extremists and against what have these against Al-Qaeda, against Daesh, and that it’s a good thing to fight there.” This is extreme brainwashing campaign. The people that I talk with, these guys, they all said that they do not force you to do that at the beginning. They are speaking with you very calmly, and you start to think that this really might be good thing. But at the end, when you decided to do this, then there’s no way back. Then they are also very clear they tell you, “Now you have to go to Syria, or you’re going to be deported back to Afghanistan with your whole family.” This is a very hard decision for all these young men and teenagers who are joining this war because in my experience, and what I have heard of all them I interviewed, they all said that the majority of the Afghan refugees who are joining the war in Syria, just do it for their families and for the destiny of their wives and children. They do not really believe that this war is a good thing, they also know exactly that they are in a very exploitative situation and that there is no return for them. AARON MATÉ: Emran Feroz, journalist and author, Focusing on the Middle East, Afghanistan and the War on Terror. Founder of Drone Memorial, a virtual memorial for civilian drone strike victims. His recent piece for The Intercept is called Iran is Sending Afghan Children to Fight for Assad in Syria. Emran, thank you. EMRAN FEROZ: Thanks for having me Aaron. AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.

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Emran Feroz is an Austrian-Afghan journalist and author currently living in Germany. His work is focusing on the Middle East, Afghanistan and the War on Terror. He is the founder of Drone Memorial, a virtual Memorial for civilian drone strike victims. His English work has appeared in The Atlantic, The NYT, Al Jazeera, The Intercept and other publications.