Very little is written in Pakistan about the Zainebiyoun, a brigade comprising of Pakistani Shia fighters trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp and currently fighting for the Assad regime in Syria, South Asia’s multimedia news agency ANI reports.
The recruits for the brigade are largely drawn from Shia Hazaras originally from Balochistan and the Shias of Parachinar and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. According to sources, the number of Pakistanis deployed in this brigade could be as high as 1000.
The brigade, named after Zainab, the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad, has been largely operating in the Syrian cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Daraa, and Hama. Their primary task is to protect Shia shrines from attacks of the ISIS.
Though the Zainebiyoun was formed around 2015, Pakistani Shias were being inducted into the Fatemiyoun from 2013 onwards. The Fatemiyoun Division, comprising mainly of Afghan Shias, has been fighting alongside Syrian government forces against the ISIS from 2013 onwards. In fact, after the Hizbullah of Lebanon, the Fatemiyoun perhaps has the largest presence of foreign fighters in Syria, estimated to be 20,000 Afghan fighters.
Interviews of Afghan Shias who have returned to Afghanistan after serving in the Fatemiyoun in Syria, indicate that Iran provides military training to Afghan and Pakistani Shi’ite both in Iran and inside Syria.
The IRGC reportedly provides a four-week, pre-deployment training to Zainebiyouan and Fatemiyoun combatants at ‘special training bases’ inside Iran. There are known to be nine such training camps in Iran. Each combatant is lured into this brigade with the hope of being granted a permanent residency of Iran, a hefty monthly pay of USD 1200 per month and payment for the education of the combatants’ children, in case of his death.
As per accounts of active members of the Zainebiyoun, many of them were driven to join the brigade and take up the Shia cause outside their own country after they witnessed the persecution of Shias in Pakistan. While the urban elite Shias remain unharmed because of their class and alignment with the Pakistani military establishment, the vast majority of the poor, disadvantaged Shia Muslims in Pakistan remain victims of frequent suicide attacks and target killing by ISIS-sponsored groups like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and other radical Sunni groups.
Iran has been using this sense of alienation among the middle class and poor Shias in Pakistan, to project itself as the sole protector of Shias worldwide. The arrival of the ISIS has allowed Iran to use its Shia militias to gain a foothold in several countries of the Middle East. There is little doubt that once the ISIS threat in Syria & Iraq is over, these militias or proxy armies will be used by Iran to further its geopolitical ambitions in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
When Pakistani COAS Gen Qamar Bajwa visited Iran recently, it is unlikely that he considered it important to raise this issue with the Iranian leaders. However, if Iran’s proactive policy in the Middle East is any indication, Pakistan may soon have to deal with Iran trained Shia proxies in its western borders.
Pakistani senators have again raised concerns about Pakistan’s role in the Saudi-led counterterrorism coalition and have demanded that the government provide the rationale for being part of it. The senators are seeking clarification amid concerns that Pakistan’s involvement in what’s known as the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) could introduce to Pakistan the sectarian conflict and regional rivalry that exists between Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.
Farhatullah Babar, a prominent lawmaker who belongs to former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party, told VOA that over the past few months, the government has been asked several times to clarify Pakistan’s role in the Muslim counterterrorism coalition and it has failed to provide a satisfactory response.
“Unfortunately, the parliament is kept in the dark and we do not know under what terms and conditions Pakistan has agreed to be a part of this coalition. The question is: Who exactly is framing our foreign policy,” Babar said.
Pakistan’s Foreign Office has insisted that the country’s involvement in the coalition does not contradict its long-standing policy of neutrality in the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Pakistan Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani was quoted by local media as saying that he could not challenge the country’s powerful military on the issue.
“I will go missing … if I give a ruling on this [military alliance],” Rabbani was quoted as saying by the country’s Dawn newspaper.