Syria is no stranger to foreign fighters. From the litany of foreign jihadists with ISIS and other Sunni extremist groups to the Shiite Afghans and Iraqis fighting to uphold the Syrian regime, dozens of countries ranging from Japan to Macedonia have seen their citizens fight in Syria. Every side of the conflict in Syria has foreign fighters, whether it be the regime, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), ISIS or the rebels. Iran in particular plays a large role in recruiting Shiite fighters from around the world to fight in Syria to uphold the Bashar al-Assad regime.
The Iranian government is heavily involved in recruiting Afghan Shiite Hazara refugees to fight in the Iranian-backed Fatemiyoun Brigade. Afghanistan is no stranger to Shiite-Sunni sectarianism. With many of these Shiite Hazara refugees having fled massacres at the hands of the Sunni Taliban, it’s not surprising Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) finds it easy to recruit from this population. Incentives for Fatemiyoun fighters reportedly include a monthly salary of around $500 and an Iranian residence permit. Others are reportedly drafted from Iranian prisons, offered a reduced sentence in return for a stint on the Syrian battlefield.
Fatemiyoun fights alongside a much smaller sister group, the Zainebiyoun Brigade. Zainebiyoun is funded, armed and trained by the IRGC just like Fatemiyoun. Unlike Fatemiyoun, Zainebiyoun is not Afghan, but rather comprises Shiite fighters from Pakistan. While Fatemiyoun has some 20,000 fighters, Zainebiyoun is nearly 20 times smaller.
A man in Iran waves the flag of the Zainebiyoun Brigade. (BAS News)
Pakistan is also no stranger to sectarian violence. In the past three decades over 4,000 people have died as a result of the Shiite-Sunni sectarian conflict in Pakistan. The rise of sectarianism in Pakistan has made it easier for Iran to recruit fighters for operations in Syria.
Zainebiyoun’s fighters come from diverse backgrounds. Many are Pakistani Shiites that live and work in eastern Iran. Others are Pakistani Hazaras, the descendants of Shiite Afghan Hazara refugees that live in Pakistan. A significant number are Pakistani citizens, many of whom come from ethnically Pashtun Shiite communities in the city of Parachinar. Parachinar is the capital of Kurram Agency, a lawless region in the loosely governed Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of northwestern Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan, an area hit by some of the worst sectarian conflict in the country.
Violence in Parachinar has killed hundreds over the past decade, both Sunni and Shiite, though terrorist attacks have disproportionately targeted Shiites. Iranian recruitment of Shiites in the region has already caused a significant sectarian backlash, with a bomb blast hitting Parachinar in late 2015, killing 23 civilians. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni Deobandi Islamist group, claimed responsibility for the blast, declaring the attack a response to Shiites from Parachinar fighting on the side of the Syrian regime.
As with the Afghan Fatemiyoun, the majority of Zainebiyoun Brigade’s dead are buried in the city of Qom in eastern Iran, rather than in Pakistan. Zainebiyoun’s lack of social media accounts has allowed it to glide under the radar, but funerals in Qom have shown that the group is active on frontlines in Syria. Estimates of the group’s size vary from several hundred to a thousand.
A martyrdom poster for a Zainebiyoun Brigade fighter. (Twitter)
While Zainebiyoun may not be large enough to immediately trigger a major sectarian backlash in Pakistan, their presence in Syria bodes badly for tensions back home. Pakistani Shiite fighters returning battle-hardened from Syria may lead the formation of Shiite militia groups in Pakistan. Sunni Islamist groups in Pakistan may use the presence of Shiite Pakistani fighters in Syria as justification to conduct further sectarian attacks on Shiite civilians, as they already have in Parachinar.
Syria, on the other hand, has yet another foreign militia operating on its soil, one which is controlled by the IRGC and can’t be easily held accountable for its actions. Zainebiyoun, along with other Iranian-backed militant groups, play a key role in alleviating the crippling manpower deficit faced by the Syrian regime. Zainebiyoun is small relative to other groups, but it may establish a precedent of sectarianism in Pakistan being tied to sectarianism in the Middle East; a worrying trend that should be closely followed.
Rao Komar is a junior intelligence analyst at the SecDev Group specializing in analysis of conflicts in Middle East and Former Soviet Union. He is also an Arabic Scholar at the University of Texas at Austin’s Arabic Flagship Program. He tweets @RaoKomar747.