In its quest to expand its regional influence and establish dominance, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has been recruiting Pakistani youth to fight for its interests in Syria, experts tell Diyaruna.
This strategy is evidenced by the Zeinabiyoun Brigade, they said, whose elements are trained and armed by the IRGC, then transported to Syria to fight alongside other IRGC-affiliated factions and the Syrian regime.
The Zeinabiyoun Brigade was first sighted in military areas of operation in Damascus and its environs and Aleppo in mid-2014, said Cairo University doctoral student Sheyar Turko, who has been researching the financing of the IRGC.
Soon afterwards, reports about the brigade fighting in Syria alongside the Syrian regime and allied militias began circulating on social media, he told Diyaruna.
"Since 2015, social networking pages of its supporters began posting updates about its casualties in Syria," he said. "What is notable is that they were buried in Iran and not Pakistan."
"Zeinabiyoun Brigade is an armed group of Pakistani Shias, most of whom hail from areas in western Pakistan," Turko said.
Others come from impoverished areas of Punjab province, some parts of Sindh province and from northern areas near the Chinese border, he said.
Poverty is rife in these areas, Turko said, adding that the IRGC has exploited this in its recruitment operations, in addition to inflaming sectarian tensions and instilling a sense of fear among Pakistani Shia.
Attacks on Shia by the Pakistani Taliban and Jaish al-Islam have heightened that fear, he said, and have opened the way for the IRGC to extend its influence over tribesmen by playing the role of their defender.
The Zeinabiyoun Brigade is not the only military brigade or armed group the IRGC has formed in Pakistan, Turko added, but it was apparently formed solely for the purpose of foreign engagement, and for the Syrian war specifically.
IRGC-backed groups have training camps in Pakistan and several in Iran, he said, "and it is not unlikely that the elements of the Zeinabiyoun Brigade were selected from these groups for foreign operations".
Similarities with Lebanon's Hizbullah
The Zeinabiyoun Brigade and groups in other countries formed by the IRGC are much like Lebanon's Hizbullah, said Middle East Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies researcher Fathi al-Sayyed, who specialises in Iranian affairs.
"The penetration tactic is the same, the motives are the same and the objectives are the same," he said. "The only difference relates to taking into account the ideological and social differences in each country."
The sole aim of the formation of these armed groups is to "tighten [IRGC’s] control over the countries they hail from and engage in proxy wars on behalf of the IRGC in hotspots like Syria", he said.
"Iran uses these mercenaries as a means to achieve its ambitions without involving its army directly in the fighting, except for the purpose of training and direct supervision of [military] operations," al-Sayyed said.
To entice Pakistanis to fight in the ranks of this brigade, Iran amended Article 980 of the Nationality Law to confer citizenship to those who render services or notable assistance to public interests in Iran.
"Another amendment was introduced in 2016 to confer citizenship to the wives and children of non-Iranians who die in the course of carrying out a mission for Iran," he said.
Al-Sayyed said Iran's objective is to "spread sectarianism in areas that it is able to access and whose communities it is able to penetrate".
"This enables it to gradually gain control of those areas, after entering them during sectarian crises, and enables it to control groups affiliated with it on purely sectarian grounds," he said.
The involvement of the Pakistani brigade in the Syrian war "amplified the sectarian character of the conflict, and consequently increased the number of deaths and prolonged the duration of the war", he said.
Preying on religious sensitivities
During the Aleppo battles in April 2016, opposition factions captured 12 individuals fighting alongside regime forces, who turned out to be Pakistani and members of the Zeinabiyoun Brigade, said Free Syrian Army officer Saleh al-Ufeisi, who is stationed in rural Aleppo.
The opposition fighters initially thought they were Pakistanis fighting in the ranks of Lebanon's Hizbullah, he told Diyaruna.
"The emblem on the badge they wear on their uniforms is similar to that of Hizbullah’s, with the same image and yellow background, and only the inscription was different," he said.
Their Pakistani nationality was confirmed during interrogations, he said, with the group revealing they had received their training in Pakistan and had been transported to Syria to fight for 20,000 Pakistani rupees ($190) a month.
They confessed they had come to Syria "first and foremost to defend the holy [Shia] shrines", he said, as they had been convinced that Syrian opposition factions want to demolish all Shia shrines and kill members of the sect.