Men of the French Foreign Legion at the Bastille Day 2013 military parade on the Champs-Élysées in Paris.

The New Foreign Legions: How Russia, Iran, and Turkey are revamping a familiar model to project power

In this report, Simon Schofield examines the rise of the new model of foreign legion, utilised by a number of powers to deploy foreign fighters, particularly those that have taken part in the Syrian War for the last decade, into other theatres. This analysis looks at how this new model has come about, how it works, and what benefits governments making use of this model hope to gain from it.

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When the phrase ‘the foreign legion’ is uttered, most of us will conjure images of the French regiments of assorted nationalities, brought together to help maintain and expand the French Empire in the 1830s, and particularly to pacify the French colony of Algeria. The Foreign Legion (or Légion étrangère) was long renowned as a place for those with shady pasts looking to make a fresh start. If you are a social pariah, are deeply indebted and wanting to disappear, or even a wanted criminal (with the exception of murder, sex crimes and narcotics involvement) in your home country, you are welcome in the Legion. Once you have fought for France, you are entitled to become French once you have served for three years, or through le sang versé (spilled blood). The French Foreign Legion have played an active role in France’s operations abroad, including working to help dislodge Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in the First Gulf War, joining in Operation Enduring Freedom to remove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, and now bolstering the French counter-terrorism efforts in the Sahel. They are an indispensable part of France’s military setup, and an enduring monument to human bravery and daring.

However, whilst France may be the country we most associate with the employment of foreign legionaries who fight on behalf of their host nations for the reward of citizenship, they are neither the first nor the last nation to do so. Foreign legions span back in time as far as one cares to look. The Romans in particular operated their auxiliary units, comprising exclusively non-citizen soldiers to augment the legions. Auxilia would eventually make up a greater proportion of Imperial Rome’s armed forces than the legionaries themselves, including providing the overwhelming majority of Rome’s cavalry; archers from Crete, Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), Thrace (modern-day Bulgaria), and even camel-mounted soldiers, known as dromedarii, from Syria. Auxilia who served for 25 years were allowed to retire and were granted citizenship diplomas, which were engraved bronze tablets that denoted the soldiers’ service and status as an adopted Roman citizen.

Over two millennia on from the days of Hiero of Syracuse supplying archers and slingers for Rome’s war with Carthage, the model persists today, and has a range of new adoptees. The use of foreign legions in today’s wars has three distinctive advantages over putting state army boots on the ground. Firstly, where nations are engaged in numerous ground wars, they may find their personnel stretched, recruiting foreigners to fight is a relatively straightforward method for filling this gap in manpower. Secondly, foreign troops are semi-deniable. In an era where war is as much an exercise in political theatre and narrative control as it is in military excellence on the battlefield, employing soldiers not of one’s own nation offers options for informational warfare and is less likely to provoke a direct response from opponents. Thirdly, they are politically a safer option. A daily cortege of coffins carrying the dismembered remains of fellow countrymen being broadcast into living rooms across the world diminishes one’s international standing and erodes political capital and public support at home. Foreign soldiers, while often naturalised at the end of their service, are distinctly foreign until that point.

Iran’s use of foreign legions is perhaps the most prolific among the newcomers to the concept in recent years. Whilst not a foreign legion in the French sense, Iran’s experimentation began with Lebanese Hezbollah, established by Iran sometime in the early 1980s (the exact year is contested) in order to oppose and harass the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Having tried and tested a working model of establishing foreign proxies, Iran used the model elsewhere and now has numerous foreign proxies operating on its behalf including the Houthis in Yemen and the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) in Iraq. However, Iran’s policies around recruiting foreign nationals to fight on their behalf has since evolved and now very much resembles the French model. The two best examples of this new direction are the Fatemiyoun and Zainabiyoun brigades fighting for Iran’s interests in Syria.

The Liwa Fatemiyoun, known in English as the Fatemiyoun Brigade or sometimes, tellingly, Hezbollah Afghanistan, was founded by the Iranian Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC)’s foreign expeditionary special forces arm, the Quds Force. The project was likely led by Esmail Qa’ani, who now commands the Quds Force following the death of Qassem Soleimani. Prior to taking the helm of the Quds Force, Qa’ani directed its activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Fatemiyoun are made up of Afghan Shi’a, mostly ethnic Hazaras. Some are refugees who fled to Iran to escape Taliban persecution, others are fervent sectarian warriors wanting to fight for Shi’a supremacy, and still others are attracted by the promise of a good wage and residency papers from Tehran. Fatemiyoun fighters are paid a monthly stipend of three million Toman, or roughly $600, which is above the average wage in Syria’s war economy, and described by the Middle East Institute as ‘a veritable fortune for struggling Hazaras’. There are believed to be between 10,000 and 20,000 Fatemiyoun fighting in Syria on behalf of Tehran to shore up the Assad regime’s once-tenuous hold on the country. The Fatemiyoun are often placed on the front-lines of the toughest battles in Syria, and have often been referred to as ‘cannon fodder’ for Iran. This is particularly illuminated by a personal account of the Fatemiyoun experience in Syria, as told by Mohammed Jalil Dinsta, a former fighter for the Brigade, who remarked: “The Iranians didn’t join the offensives. They weren’t on the first lines at the front. Their wages are three times higher than ours and they get better rations. When they are caught and arrested, someone tries to have them released. When they are wounded, they get a lifetime pension. When they die, every single one of them gets honoured with a big ceremony.” The Fatemiyoun have been instrumental in maintaining Iranian interests and influence in the war, but as the conflict is now beginning to wind down, many are returning to Afghanistan. Whilst some fear that they may continue to act as Iranian proxies in Afghanistan, others see them as burned out and disillusioned with the Shi’a jihad, both by the horrors of war and also by the ill treatment they have received at the hands of their Iranian paymasters. Iran has rejected the Doha Agreement negotiated between the US and the Taliban and appears to be angling to wreck the intra-Afghan talks precipitated by the deal, sponsoring an anti-deal Taliban splinter group. This may mean that Iran still has plans for the returned Fatemiyoun. However, public support for Iran is currently on a downward trajectory among Afghan Hazaras, given the mistreatment they are experiencing. This was brought to a head in May when Iranian border forces beat dozens of Hazara migrants who were attempting to illegally travel into Iran, forcing them back into the Helmand river, where 29 of them drowned.

The Fatemiyoun have a sister brigade, the Zainabiyoun. The sister brigade was formed out of the Fatemiyoun when it became clear that there were enough Pakistani Shi’a volunteering to fight that they could constitute their own unit. Many of the Zainabiyoun hail from Parachinar, a Shi’a enclave in the tribal mountains of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The Zainabiyoun are believed to number as many as 1,000 fighters as of 2015 and have primarily fought in and around Damascus, defending Shi’a holy sites such as the Zainab shrine and Imam Hasan mosque, but have also fought in Dara’a, in southern Syria. The Fatemiyoun and Zainabiyoun were deployed to Syria in order to fill the vacuum created by the redployment of Iraqi Shi’a militias, who were forced to return to Iraq to fight Islamic State in 2014. In an official statement from the Zainabiyoun, congratulating the IRGC’s ‘victory’ against Islamic State, the brigade declared its readiness to fight anywhere the IRGC ordered it to, setting the stage for further foreign expeditions.

The Syrian regime has also experimented with foreign legions of its own, and operates the Liwa al-Quds, roughly translated as ‘the Jerusalem Brigade’ in English. Liwa al-Quds is a pro-Assad militia comprising Palestinian fighters in service of the regime. Syrian opposition sources claim Liwa al-Quds was founded in Aleppo in 2013 by a Palestinian called Mohammed al-Saeed, supported by Syrian Air Force Intelligence. The brigade has an estimated 1,000 fighters among its number, and that its primary directive was to fight among the pro-regime Shabiha in Aleppo.

Whether or not they are explicitly following the Iranian example, Turkey’s support for Jaish al-Islam, since rebranded as the Syrian National Army is very much following the Quds Force playbook. Jaish al-Islam was initially a Saudi-funded outfit waging jihad in Syria against President Assad’s regime. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has confirmed that at least 50 JaM/SNA fighters are former Islamic State members. Turkish President Erdogan has repurposed the SNA and deployed them as a proxy force to fight the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria, in order to challenge the nascent Rojava project, which Turkey sees as a Kurdish threat both to its national security and also to its territorial integrity.

Having cut their teeth in Syria fighting regime forces and the SDF, Erdogan has now deployed this Sunni homage to the Fatemiyoun and Zainabiyoun to Libya, where the fight to prop up the Government of National Accord (GNA) against Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). Turkey has bolstered its Syrian foreign legion with contingents of jihadists from other countries, including 2,500 Tunisians. The total number of fighters is difficult to estimate, but the Pentagon reports that Turkey has sent at least 3,500 Syrians to fight in Libya, whilst the SOHR reports that Turkey has deployed over 27,000 fighters, including over 17,000 SNA (of which at least 350 are believed to be children) and over 10,000 non-Syrian fighters. Of the 27,000, 6,000 are believed to have returned to Syria having completed a tour of duty and received a full payment for their services. DW, the German public news broadcaster, reports that Syrians fighting for Turkey in Libya receive a monthly wage of around $2000, and may also be being offered Turkish citizenship. Turkey has also granted citizenship to Hamas operatives who had been planning terror attacks from Istanbul, which raises a question as to whether Hamas may also operate as a Turkish proxy on occasion.

Russia, keen to capitalise on the deniability conferred by foreign fighters, is working to deploy Syrian fighters, seasoned by nearly a decade of war in the Levant, to fight on the other side of the Libyan conflict, in support of Haftar’s LNA. The Russian Private Military Company Wagner have been fighting on Haftar’s behalf since at least October 2018, when the Sun cited two British intelligence officials’ claims that Russia had established bases in Tobruk and Benghazi. These bases, established officially by Wagner Group, are believed actually to be fronts for Russian forces. The Russian/Wagner support for General Haftar is sizeable, with media sources in Libya reporting in May that Haftar owed Wagner $150m, which he was refusing to pay because he claimed Wagner were deploying inexperienced troops from Syria, Serbia, and Belarus. Also in May, Reuters reported that Russia was accelerating its recruitment of Syrians to fight for Wagner alongside the LNA. Russia is believed to be training prospective foreign legionnaires in a base it operates in Homs, before sending them to Libya, where they are paid a monthly wage of between $1,000 and $2,000. Whilst there have not yet been reports of Russia inducing foreign fighters to wage war on their behalf with the tempting promise of Russian citizenship or residency, recent reforms in April 2020 mean that foreigners can now have dual citizenship and are not required to renounce their birth citizenship to become Russian citizens. This paves the way for President Putin to begin a similar policy as Turkey and Iran, should he wish to.         

Foreign legions are coming into fashion as quasi-deniable mechanisms to deploy the fearsome military skills of those who have survived the war in Syria so far to other military theatres, at a fraction of the financial and political cost required to deploy state armies overseas. Expect this trend to continue as ambitious powers seek to find ways to project power abroad despite relatively restrictive budgets and shortages of personnel.  

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Simon Schofield is a Senior Fellow and Acting Director at the Human Security Centre, where he researches a broad range of security issues from terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and human rights issues. He has served as a geopolitical consultant for numerous news outlets including the BBC, RTE, and the International Business Times.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encyclopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Cover Image: Marie-Lan Nguyen, French Foreign Legionnaires at a Bastille Day Parade in Paris