Pakistani unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards fighting in SyriaSep 1st, 2016
In late 2014, the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force recruited a group of 50 Pakistani Shiites and formed the Zeynabiyoun brigade. The unit is currently estimated to have 1500 to 2000 fighters in Syria.
On June 28th, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards organized a rally in Tehran to honor the “martyrs” of the “Zeinabiyoun” Brigade which consists of Pakistani Shiites recruited and organized by the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force to fight in Syria.
Since the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011 and the Iranian military intervention in defense of the Assad regime, the Quds Force has deployed several thousand of its members together with Hezbollah fighters and thousands of Iraqi Shiites mobilized by its proxy militias in Iraq.
In 2013, the Quds Force recruited Afghan Shiites, mostly immigrants living in Iran and formed the Fatemiyoun division which is currently estimated to have nearly 12,000 fighters in Syria.
In late 2014, the Quds Force formed the Zeynabiyoun brigade after recruiting a group of 50 Pakistani Shiites. While one of its commanders told an Iranian website that the brigade has thousands of fighters, the unit is currently estimated to have 1500 to 2000 fighters in Syria. In December 2014, Iranian media reported about the Zeynabiyoun brigade fighting in Syria for the first time.
The Zeynabiyoun Brigade also has an official Facebook page and a secondary page where news of its activities in Syria and its casualties are posted. A cursory review of public funerals held in Iran for Zeynabyion members since 2014 till September 2016 indicate that the brigade has lost nearly 100 fighters in Syria. Panjereh Weekly, a publication close to Revolutionary Guards reported in July 2016 that 96 members of the brigade have been killed in Syria.
The Zeynabiyoun consists of two distinct categories of fighters, first, its high ranking members and commanders who are members of the Iran Quds Force and Shiite fanatics loyal to the Iranian regime’s ideology. But the majority of Zeynabiyoun members are impoverished Pakistani Shiites, mainly immigrants in Iran.
One of the brigade’s commanders, Abbas, a Pakistani Shiite confirmed that he was working for the Quds Force prior to joining the Zeynabiyoun. According to Mashregh, a website affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, the founding members of Zeynabiyoun were Pakistani students in the Shiite seminaries in the city of Qom. Panjereh Weekly has also confirmed that the first group of Zeynabiyoun members were the Pakistani students of Al Mustafa International University.
Established in 2007 in Qom, Al Mustafa trains foreign Shia clerics, scholars and missionaries. Its main campuses are based in Iran and it has more than one hundred seminaries, Islamic schools and religious centers around the world. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is the highest authority of the University. Al Mustafa operates several seminaries and centers in Pakistan. The family of one Zeynabyioun fighter killed in Syria told Panjereh Weekly that he was a student at one of the seminaries in Pakistan before being recruited by the brigade.
Creation of Zeynabyioun and Iran-Pakistan relations
Pakistan is an Islamic country of 170 million, the majority of whom are Sunnis with a minority of Shiites estimated at around 15 to 20 million. The Iranian regime has established a network of religious centers and schools in Pakistan and enjoys some influence among the Shiite minority. Its affiliates regularly organize a number of events including annual Quds day rallies, an event designed to fuel anti-Israeli hatred amongst Pakistani Muslims.
Fearing the Pakistani government’s reaction, the Iranian regime has been expanding its influence with caution. The creation of an armed radical militia could have long-term impacts on the Pakistani Shiite community and could intensify Shiite-Sunnis tensions in the country. According to one of the brigade’s commanders, the Quds Force’s initial 2014 objective was to form the Zeynabiyoun by exclusively recruiting from the Pakistani immigrants living in Iran and not accepting those coming from Pakistan. According to one of the Zeynabiyoun’s officials confirmed that the Quds Force was not initially eager to publicize the brigade’s existence but the increase in the unit’s fatalities and the rumors surrounding it forced the regime to admit to its existence and its participation in the Syrian civil war.
According to another brigade commander, the expulsion of 12,000 Pakistani Shiites from the United Arab Emirates from 2014 to 2015 and their arrival in Iran provided the Iranian Quds Force with a recruiting pool to boost the ranks of the Zeynabiyoun Brigade. According to Panjereh, some of the Zeynabiyoun fighters killed in Syria have been buried under pseudonyms in Iran as their families cannot repatriate their bodies due to fears of persecution by the Pakistani government.
*Hassan Dai is an investigative journalist and political analyst specialized in Iranian regime activities in the Middle East and pro-Iran activities in the West. He is the editor of Iranian American Forum.