Iran lures Pakistani Shias to fight its war in Syria

The number of Shia Pakistani fighters active in the Syrian conflict is hard to verify.
Sunday 16/09/2018
Iran-backed Shia fighters march during a military-style training in the city of Najaf. (Reuters)
Costly game. Iran-backed Shia fighters march during a military-style training in the city of Najaf. (Reuters)

KARACHI - Members of Pakistan’s Shia community have been complaining that their relatives are victims of enforced disappearances, allegedly by the country’s security services, after returning from the Middle East.

The families say their loved ones left to perform pilgrimage to Shia holy sites outside Pakistan but intelligence reports indicated that many were travelling to Iran and Iraq to be trained to fight in Syria.

“It had been two days since [my brother Haider] returned from pilgrimage in Karbala, in Iraq, then he was gone. He has no links to Syria. I showed the authorities his passport,” said Samira, a Shia woman who lives in Karachi.

Intelligence reports say Shia men are being recruited in Karachi, Gilgit Baltistan, Quetta and Parachinar to fight for Iran-backed militias supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani for years has been running training camps for foreign fighters who want to take part in the Shia jihad in the region.

Samira said she was unable to determine whether her brother joined the jihad but she added that he should have his day in court. “If he has (taken part in fighting for Iran), please try him in a court of law but please let us know. My father died without ever knowing the truth about Haider,” she said.

Pakistani intelligence agencies did not respond for comment.

A Shia imam in Quetta said men have approached him about joining Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria.

“People come to me and ask ‘Can we go for jihad to Syria and Iraq?’ When I mull over the situation, they respond, ‘Look, help us or we will go without your guidance’,” said the imam, who requested to remain anonymous.

Many foreign Shia fighters have reportedly joined the Zainabiyoun Brigade, a secretive militia group created by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran. The name is derived from Zainab, a granddaughter of Prophet Mohammad, who is revered by Shias.

Zainab’s shrine is in Damascus. The Islamic State (ISIS), which considers shrines heretical, called for the demolition of Zainab’s shrine. Many Shia leaders called on volunteers from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq to fight to protect the shrines.

“The shrine is central to Zainabiyoun movement, the main purpose being to protect it from destruction by Sunni extremists such as [ISIS],” said Sabookh Syed, a Pakistan-based journalist. “Iran in a way wants to export its revolution.”

Zainabiyoun Brigade operations are often carried out in secret for the protection of its members.

“Those recruited are often routed through groups that espouse Iran’s radical absolute velayat-e faqih ideology, so Tehran has to tread a bit more lightly so it doesn’t get its supporters into further trouble,” said Phillip Smyth, a researcher on Shia militias at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

In addition to recruiting fighters on ideological grounds, Iran offers Shia fighters material gains, observers said.

“Iran pulls in fighters with a monetary incentive and ideological incentives. It brings tens of thousands more Afghans than Pakistanis,” said Alex Vatanka, a specialist in Iranian affairs at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

“Iran early on realised that [it] wanted to have a strong footing in the Syrian conflict without raising questions at home,” Vatanka said. Iran was looking for foot soldiers to alleviate damage caused by the decline in manpower from the Assad regime, he added.

Many Pakistani foreign fighters choose to settle in Iran rather than returning home.

“From what I’ve seen, most of the Pakistani fighters that have gone to Syria have one way or another settled in Iran,” said Vatanka.

Iran has not publicly commented on cases of detained Shia militiamen in Pakistan. “They do not want to upset the Pakistanis,” explained Vatanka.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was the first high-ranking foreign official to visit Pakistan after the election of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on August 17.

The number of Shia Pakistani fighters active in the Syrian conflict is hard to verify.

“The total number of people from Pakistan cannot be more than 700 or 800, definitely under 1,000,” Maulana Allama Ameen Shahidi, a Shia cleric based in Islamabad, said.

There are reportedly more than 1,800 cases of enforced disappearances that remain unresolved in Pakistan. The number of Shia returnees picked up by security agencies is estimated to be about 300.

The Zainabiyoun Brigade is only part of a large contingent of Shia foreign fighters linked to Iran. The militias include Fatemiyoun Brigade in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Analyst Ali Alfoneh said, fatalities of Shia fighters in Syria from 2012-18 include: 1,232 Lebanese, 896 Afghan, 558 Iranians, 157 Pakistanis and 116 Iraqis.

The Iranian Tasnim News Agency reported that Iran signed a long-term security agreement with the Syrian government in August to enhance its military reach and extends its stationing in Syria.

This deal is to enhance military cooperation ahead of an expected offensive against the rebel-held Idlib province. Iran will have to mobilise more non-Iranian Shia fighters to continue the next phase of the fighting.

Vatanka said Iran will finance the fighters through direct Iranian government funding, underground networks of smuggling and so-called Shia charitable organisations. Fundamentally, the Iranian state is behind funding the proxies fighting in Syria.

Iran’s involvement in Syria has not been without cost.

“Iran has played out the long game but its foreign policy is costly. When Iranians at home are short on bread are they going to assist in the reconstruction of Syria? This would be a very dangerous path,” said Vatanka.

With the Iran-backed offensive against Idlib looming, it is unknown whether Tehran can rely on more Shia Pakistanis answering the call to jihad in Syria. Young men from Pakistan’s Shia community would think twice because they are being treated with suspicion by authorities.

Samira showed a document from Pakistani military intelligence stating it apprehended five men, including her brother. She is awaiting further information on Haider’s condition, not knowing whether her brother is alive or dead.