US sanctions Iranian militias for turning refugees into ‘cannon fodder’

WASHINGTON: The United States on Thursday imposed sanctions on two Iranian militias made up of Afghan and Pakistani refugees, including children, and sent as “cannon fodder” to Syria battlefields.

The Fatemiyoun Division and Zaynabiyoun Brigade prey on the millions of undocumented migrants and refugees in Iran “coercing them to fight in Syria under threat of arrest or deportation,” the designation said. 

They are overseen by the Quds Force, the branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps responsible for overseas operations, which the US and many other countries consider a terrorist organization. 

Several hundred Fatemiyoun Division fighters, including children as young as 14, have died fighting Iran’s war in Syria, the department said.

Iran is accused of bringing in 80,000 Shiite fighters from countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan as part of its military support for Bashar Al-Assad during the nearly eight-year war.

 The Fatemiyoun Division targets Afghans while the the Zaynabiyoun Brigade is comprised mostly of Pakistanis.

“The brutal Iranian regime exploits refugee communities in Iran, deprives them of access to basic services such as education, and uses them as human shields for the Syrian conflict,”  Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said. 

The sanctions are part of an “ongoing pressure campaign to shut down the illicit networks the regime uses to export terrorism and unrest across the globe,” he added.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the sanctions punished Iran for using refugees as “cannon fodder in Syria” and the regime’s “despicable use of child soldiers.”

The sanctions come as the US is under pressure to show that it can still act as a bulwark against Iranian influence in Syria after Donald Trump said he would withdraw American soldiers from the country.

The sanctions, issued by the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, also targeted two companies linked to the blacklisted Iranian airline Mahan Air and two aircraft.

Qeshm Fars Air, which is staffed by Mahan employees, operates two aircraft which regularly deliver weapons shipments to Damascus on behalf of the Quds Force. Mahan had already been sanctioned by the US for flying fighters, equipment and funds into Damascus. On Monday, Germany banned Mahan from operating there because if its involvement in the Syria war.
The Treasury Department also sanctioned an Armenian based company, Flight Travel LLC, for providing services to Mahan.

The sanctions mean all property and interests in the US of the groups are blocked and anyone who engages with them may also be targeted.

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