Iran recruits Pakistani Shias for combat in Syria

Published: December 11, 2015
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Shia fighters stationed in Damascus to protect Prophet Muhammad (PHUB) granddaughter's shrine. PHOTO REUTERS

Shia fighters stationed in Damascus to protect Prophet Muhammad (PHUB) granddaughter's shrine. PHOTO REUTERS

BEIRUT: For years, websites linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard have posted articles eulogizing Shia fighters who die in Syria. But two men heralded last month for dying to defend a shrine near Damascus were different from most martyrs given such treatment in the past: they were Pakistanis.

The men were part of the Zeinabiyoun, a unit of Pakistani fighters named for a granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) buried in the shrine, the latest contingent in an Iranian drive to recruit Shias from the region to fight in Syria.

The increase in the number of “martyrdom” notices of fighters from the group this year indicates they are taking a more active role in the conflict. A posting in mid-November on a Twitter account bearing the group’s name displayed the pictures of 53 men, described as fighters killed in battle.

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While there has been no official announcement of their total numbers, a regional source familiar with the issue said there were hundreds of Pakistanis fighting in Syria, many stationed around the shrine of Prophet Mohammad’s (pbuh) granddaughter Zainab.

Iran’s recruitment of the Pakistani fighters adds yet another international dimension to Syria’s 4-year-old civil war, which has deepened sectarian divisions across the Muslim world and drawn in most regional and global powers.

Shias in Pakistan are helping to defend the government of Tehran’s ally, President Bashar al-Assad, who is also supported by Russian air strikes and fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, against an array of Sunni rebels backed by Turkey and Arab states. The United States, Turkey, Arab and European powers are also participating in a coalition bombing Islamic State.

A Facebook page bearing the name of the Zeinabiyoun showed pictures of what was described as a funeral in Iran in late November, with members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard standing next to men in shalwar kameez, the traditional dress worn in Pakistan.

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“The Zeinabiyoun are a Pakistani Shias’ outfit that’s run by the IRGC,” said Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland and adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has done extensive research on Shia groups fighting in Syria, using an acronym to refer to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

“They’ve put together their own imagery, their own recruitment type material. They really became more of a marketable element toward the end of the summer of 2015. That’s when they became more of a centered group.”

Sectarian Identity 

“There is a large pool to draw from,” said Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington and the author of a book on relations between Pakistan and Iran.

“There are pockets within that Shia community that have been willing to pick up arms to fight for their Shia identity, their sectarian identity. And that’s what the IRGC is tapping into.”

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They are only the latest Shias recruited by Iran to fight in Syria, after Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, members of Iraq’s Shia majority and members of Afghanistan’s ethnic Hazara Shia minority. All have been deployed to support Assad, whose own Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shia Islam.

Videos and pictures posted on social media sites say Zeinabiyoun fighters have been active around Aleppo as well as at the shrine near Damascus in the last month.

Based on material posted online, the Zeinabiyoun could have up to 1,000 fighters, estimated Smyth.

Attempts to get comment from a public relations news office of the Revolutionary Guard were unsuccessful.

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The Zeinabiyoun have drawn on the symbols of their fellow Shia fighters to brand themselves: their logo, a fist holding a machine gun set in green and yellow, is an almost identical copy of that of Lebanon’s Hezbollah. They are occasionally referred to as Hezbollah Pakistan online.

The group is open about its affiliations: its Facebook pages praise Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and talk about a sense of duty to defend the Sayyida Zeinab shrine.

A Zeinabiyoun image posted on Instagram shows the crosshairs of a gun on the back of a man with the slogan “I will kill any takfiri Wahhabis I can find,” in Farsi. Wahhabism is a strict form of radical Islam and the state sect of Iran’s main rival in the region, Saudi Arabia. Takfiris are hardliners who brand other Muslims heretics.

“The message Iran is recruiting with, like it or not, is a sectarian message,” said Vatanka. “That is a message that is inherently dangerous and can get out of hand.”

According to the group’s postings on the internet, some of the Pakistanis fighting in Syria were already residing in Iran, while others come from a community of Pashtun Shias in the town of Parachinar in the tribal areas.

The Zeinbayioun started out as part of a unit of Afghan fighters called the Fatemiyoun, Smyth said. The Fatemiyoun have taken heavy losses in Syria and there are regular postings about their casualties on hardline Iranian sites.

At least some of the Afghan fighters have been lured to fight through promises of Iranian citizenship or steady monthly income. Advertisements aimed at Pakistanis online suggest similar inducements.

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One recruitment ad posted on Facebook last week said any physically fit man between 18 and 35 should apply to fight in Syria. It offered 45 days of initial military training along with six months of further training in Syria, a salary of Rs120,000 per month and 15 days of holiday every three months.

If the recruit is killed in action, his children’s education will be paid for and the family will be given pilgrimage trips to Iran, Iraq and Syria every year. Any willing recruits should make their way to Iran’s holy city of Qom, the ad said. A phone number was provided. There was no answer when Reuters rang.

The Afghan and Pakistani recruits help make up for the withdrawal of Iraqi Shia militia units, called home to help fight Islamic State fighters there last year.

“It’s clear that they (Afghan and Pakistani recruits) had to accept that role from the Iraqi Shias who were pulled out,” Smyth said.

Vatanka described the mission as an “ideological project” for the Revolutionary Guard, promoting Shia solidarity in other countries in the region.

“Given the limitations of how much it can recruit at home, the Revolutionary Guard needs to shore up support in like-minded communities, which they have been pretty good at in the course of the Islamic Republic’s history.”

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Reader Comments (34)

  • salman
    Dec 11, 2015 - 10:31AM

    Nothing new, Saudia and other Islamic countries also recruits Pakistani to fight for them.
    Even they also tried to recruits Pakistan army for their fight.Recommend

  • Xnain
    Dec 11, 2015 - 11:09AM

    Eitherway, Iran is no saint, they are as shitty country as the Saudis are. To me Iran and KSA are like south and north poles of axis of evil. Recommend

  • S
    Dec 11, 2015 - 11:15AM

    @salman:
    Except they are sanctioned by the Govt and state.
    Pakistan has taken a neutral stance in this fight. This is not our fight. Who allowed them to do this? Did they take permission from the Govt? Those involved should be heavily fined on their return and the same goes for Pakistani sunnis if they are found doing the exact same thing for SA. Pakistan should also take up this issue with Iran. How dare they?Recommend

  • Seeker
    Dec 11, 2015 - 11:34AM

    So each side is tapping the resource pool, just like Saudia, India, Iran and US. I guess its all about money, I remember Musharraf selling lot of things too .Recommend

  • ZHamid
    Dec 11, 2015 - 11:51AM

    Thank you Quaid E Azam for giving us a separate country…..Recommend

  • goldconsumer
    Dec 11, 2015 - 11:57AM

    The Saudi Iran tussle has fuelled sectarian tensions in the past in Pakistan and will further increase our problems when these fighters return and have nothing to do. Future target killers..Recommend

  • ghazal
    Dec 11, 2015 - 12:06PM

    @Xnain:
    and where does Pakistan fit in your geography, center??Recommend

  • Jeeens
    Dec 11, 2015 - 12:24PM

    Thanks ETfor putting this. Pakistani authorities should must take notice of such open Recruitment from Pakistan, especially their local handlers I.e. Amin Shahidi, Raja Nasir, Faisal Raza Abdi and the likes. This should be part of National Action Plan Recommend

  • PakPower
    Dec 11, 2015 - 12:26PM

    @Xnain:

    Totally agreed. Iran and Saudi Arabia are two sides of the same coin – hotbeds of sectarian identity. The current strife in the Muslim world is owing to both of them.Recommend

  • Smiling Buddha
    Dec 11, 2015 - 12:59PM

    Until pakistan starts protects its minorities this is bound to happen. Recommend

  • salman
    Dec 11, 2015 - 2:00PM

    @S: SA have done exactly same things in the past many times.

    I totally agree with you, Pakistan should take up these issues with SA,IRAN all any once else. We should not allow them to fight there war in Pakistan.Recommend

  • cautious
    Dec 11, 2015 - 2:43PM

    And what happens when they returned to Pakistan? It’s a ticking time bomb and Pakistan should take steps now to make sure this recruiting stops.Recommend

  • Nasir
    Dec 11, 2015 - 3:57PM

    Arab and Turk divide, Arab nationalism have served Western interest for a long time, Subsiquently, Nationalism resulted in revolutions in many Arab countries (e.g. Iraq, Syria Egypt etc.). West have changed nationalism with extremism. Extremism is instrument to secure western interests. For promotion of extremism in muslim world. They made two (Saudi Arebia and Iran) sectarian pillars and have eliminated (e.g. Saddam, Jamal Abdul Nasir and Gadafi etc.). Now they set target Syria’s Assad. Removal of Asad will take Syria in the hands of extremists. Recommend

  • Nasir
    Dec 11, 2015 - 3:58PM

    Arab and Turk divide, Arab nationalism have served Western interest for a long time, Subsiquently, Nationalism resulted in revolutions in many Arab countries (e.g. Iraq, Syria Egypt etc.). They have changed nationalism with extremism. Extremism is instrument to secure western interests. For promotion of extremism in muslim world. They made two (Saudi Arebia and Iran) sectarian pillars and have eliminated (e.g. Saddam, Jamal Abdul Nasir and Gadafi etc.). Now they set target Syria’s Assad. Removal of Asad will take Syria same as Iraq in the hands of extremists. Recommend

  • Farru
    Dec 11, 2015 - 4:24PM

    This must be happening. Pakistani security establishment knows everything. They have also turned a blind eye on those fighters who have been going to fight Asad’s regime in Syria since 2011.

    That only came to light when dead bodies of these young religiously motivated men started coming to Karachi. One of my friends saw dead bodies of fighters who were killed in Syria while fighting Asad regime in Syria.

    Why our security establishment is sleeping? All these fighters, whether Shia or Sunni, upon their return to Pakistan can join any militant organisation.

    What we saw in France?

    French & Belgian nationals went to Syria and then they planned coordinated attacks in Paris killing 130 civilians. Wake up Pakistan!Recommend

  • TwoWay
    Dec 11, 2015 - 4:29PM

    Pak govt must note it down and watch for these revolutionist coming back to homeland with resolve. The biggest issue these days is these fighter when come back or sent back to their home land after combat training to fight their government. As long as they serve their community or are under the control of their local religious leader it traceable. Recommend

  • Inayat Hussain
    Dec 11, 2015 - 5:13PM

    Don’t worry about them… They’re just protecting the holy shrine of Hazrat Zainab(s.a) not defending a monarchy like KSA….and please don’t compare them with Talibaan,LeJ,Alqaida etc. who always kill innocent citizens.Recommend

  • Bilal
    Dec 11, 2015 - 5:36PM

    When commenting on such issues, one must understand when is the right time to pick up arms and also understand who should aim at whom. They Shia militias being recruited here and in other countries are fighting ISIS, a terror group with no human values at all; the group that killed thousands of innocents and the one that challenged the writ of Syrian govt.

    Iran, Hezbollah, Iraq and Sham and other Shia militias along with Russian are fighting the EVIL that also raped and sold hundreds of captured girls and women as sex slaves.

    In that case, shame on Saudia and all those who support ISIS and write against those who are fighting takfiris like daesh.

    When god forbids attacks and rapes like those happening in Syria and Iraq start here in Pakistan, this govt and and the politicians whom we all look at will have their flights booked for Saudia and elsewhere while our women being raped and children being killed here. Recommend

  • Abdullah
    Dec 11, 2015 - 5:47PM

    Allah is Great and the only planner of the universe. He always send Mussa (A.S) to down every FIRAWN. INSHALLAH soon Saudi Kings will face the terrorism he breeded and financed for the protection of yahood/nasara and killing of muslim ummah.Recommend

  • Xnain
    Dec 11, 2015 - 5:51PM

    @ghazal:
    As the playground. LeJ+SSP etc vs LeM+TNJ etcRecommend

  • Dec 11, 2015 - 8:19PM

    Dear Editor . your news headlines and news in particular incite shia Sunni hatred. Make your news to make a harmonious and a brotherly environment.Recommend

  • Muhammad
    Dec 11, 2015 - 9:54PM

    For the people supporting to justify this bias against Saudi Arabia….. Do they even know who Bashar al Assad is and what he has done to the people of Syria?
    First off nobody in their right minds should support groups like isis who have killed thousands of Muslims (majority sunnis) whom they claim to represent. But Assad is a whole different story. According to international sources, 85% of the 200000 civilians killed in Syria are attributed to the Assad regime.
    Have people forgot how civilians were burnt and buried alive if they didn’t call Assad their God? A woman raped in a mosque by Assad soldiers on the microphone so that the whole area can hear her screams. Lines of people waiting for food banks while being besieged by Assad’s forces. Has the common man lost all sense of humanity just to support their own bias??? Recommend

  • Dec 11, 2015 - 10:06PM

    Iran is propagating sectarianism in our peaceful country.Recommend

  • Double Standards
    Dec 12, 2015 - 10:00AM

    Even when there is talk and just talk of sending Pakistanis to fight the insurgency in Yemen there is tremendous uproar but when Pakistanis are fighting to help sustain the butcher regime of Assad, who according to the UN has killed more than a hundred thousand people, there is hardly any reaction. Double standards.Recommend

  • Shia-Sunni Unity
    Dec 12, 2015 - 12:01PM

    The article has cited sources that are known for Iranophobic propaganda with an attempt to somehow equate Iran with policies adopted by Saudi Arabia. Shias and Iran do not hold a sectarian mindset if one tries to understand the other as ’the other‘ and not how you want to understand them. Theres not a single Shia authority who declared wahabis / sunnis are kaafir or to be killed. And thats why the people in Gaza are all Sunni but the only people helping the resistance in Gaza are all Shias (Iran). The Shia people come out on the roads in support of Sunnis on Quds day while protesting for Palestinians is banned in most of the Sunni-Arab countries. This ‘’shia vs Sunni‘’ sectarian narrative on Syria is spread by Saudi Arabia, to recruit support from Sunnis; and the West, to shift blame off their involvement. Iran and Shias have a completely different perspective on Syria, where Assad is not supported due to his sectarian affiliation. Why are western sources always used to explain Iran/”Shia” position on Syria instead of countless interviews and speeches of Iranian officials on this topic? Western sources are extremely poor in explaining middleeast, either errornously or intentionally.Recommend

  • Adil
    Dec 12, 2015 - 4:35PM

    @Xnain
    Don’t forget that Pakistan pioneered this tactic. For years, we sent fighters to Kashmir to fight Indians and then to Afghanistan to boost Taliban. Some say that this is still continuing. Shouldn’t we also be on that axis of evil somewhere?Recommend

  • ShamelessPakistanis
    Dec 12, 2015 - 5:52PM

    @Muhammad:
    International sources like reuters should not be considered legit. Newspapers, media etc are nothing but propaganda warfare. Recommend

  • sanjita
    Dec 12, 2015 - 8:30PM

    @Adil: No India pioneered this tactic in 1947. We cheated the Kashmiris along with the British and we have terrorizing Kashmir ever since with illegal occupation by over 700, 000 soldiers in disregard fpr UN resolutions. On the other hand, Pakistanis in Azad Kashmir sign up to join the military to liberate occupied Kashmir. Also we have paid Afghans to be fighters and cause trouble in Pakistan’s border areas since 1947. So India caused the Afghan misery and so much trouble in the region. Shouldn’t we as Indians be on the Axis of evil somewhere too?Recommend

  • think
    Dec 12, 2015 - 9:28PM

    Remember the top terrorists in Banu and D.I.Khan jail escaped very easily, which every one knows that was not possible. It is big ??? , It was planned and were send by authorities as gift to please some friends in middle east.Recommend

  • Ram
    Dec 13, 2015 - 12:21AM

    For Iran and it’s lovers, massacres only happen in Yemen and Bahrain. Elsewhere, it’s insurgencies that must be crushed.Recommend

  • Truth Be Told
    Dec 13, 2015 - 12:38AM

    @Shia-Sunni Unity:
    “And thats why the people in Gaza are all Sunni but the only people helping the resistance in Gaza are all Shias (Iran).”
    No, sir, Iran and Shias support the Hamas, the people of Gaza and their government, and the Palestinians only because they create pressures against Israel against whom Iran is competing for expansion and influence in the Middle East.
    “Why are western sources always used to explain Iran/”Shia” position on Syria instead of countless interviews and speeches of Iranian officials on this topic? ”
    Iranian sources would be as biased as Western sources. Indeed, a number of Western sources can be more objective than Iranian sources as many a Western source is based on the tradition of finding out the truth, whereas Iranian sources are more likely to reflect its ideology.Recommend

  • S1
    Dec 13, 2015 - 12:40AM

    @ Inayat, sure they are there just to protect a shrine… I think you’ll find Iran needs all the fighters it can get on the ground in places like Aleppo. As they are and were losing badly prior to, and even after airstrikes. Hezbollah have lost many hundreds too..

    Any Shia Pakistani getting involved in this is doing a dangerous action, and is being USED by the Iranians.

    Ultimately they will not win, as Syria is not, and will never be a majority shia country. Stop acting like victims and then going off and doing things like this. The senior shia clergy must speak on this matter, and prevent it. Recommend

  • Rent-A-Army
    Dec 13, 2015 - 8:35AM

    This will be great for the Shias, Hazaras and Ismailis. The fun will begin few years after these men come back home. Then let us see if anyone dares to make mischief during Ashura and tries to attack Shias.Recommend

  • wadd
    Feb 24, 2016 - 4:37PM

    @Xnain:
    you have a sick mind and you cant judge between good and bad,
    Iran is on Good side and Saudi is bad site but you have not vision.Recommend

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