The Revolutionary Guards of Iran has been using its website to honor Shia fighters who died in Syria or years. Last month, the Revolutionary Guard honored two men who were killed defending a shrine near Damascus. However, it was noted that the two men were Pakistanis— different from most martyrs given such honor in the past.
Iran is using this strategy to recruit Shias in the region to fight in Syria, according to political observers. According to reports, the men who defended the shrine near Damascus were part of the Zeinabiyoun, a unit of Pakistani fighters named after Zeinab, the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammad. Zeinab was buried in the shrine.
The number of fighters from the Zeinabiyoun group dubbed martyrs increased this year, a sign that they are becoming more active in the Syrian conflict. The group posted a picture of 53 fighters killed in battle on its Twitter account in mid-November.
In its Facebook page, the Zeinaboyoun group posted pictures showing a funeral in Iran with members of the Revolutionary Guards standing next to men wearing shalwar kameez, the traditional costume of Pakistan, in late November.
Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland and adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the members of the Zeinaboyoun group are Pakistani Shias. According to him, the IRGC or the Revolutionary Guards of Iran is running the Pakistani Shias fighting in Syria.
“They’ve put together their imagery, their 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,” said Smyth.
Iran added another dimension to the Syrian conflict
A source familiar with the situation told Reuters that there were hundreds of Pakistani Shias fighting in Syria. Most of them were stationed around Zeinab’s shrine. According to political observers, the efforts of Iran in recruiting Pakistani Shia’s to fight in Syria added a new dimension to the ongoing civil war in the country.
The Syrian civil war deepened the sectarian divisions in the Middle East. Most countries in the region, as well as global powers in the West, were drawn toward the conflict.
A US-led coalition in Syria is fighting ISIS. Russia has military operations in Syria primarily to support the Assad regime and eventually decided to conduct airstrikes against ISIS. The terrorist group recently claimed responsibility for the Russian plane crash in Egypt that killed hundreds of people onboard.
Iran’s sectarian message is dangerous
Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington and author of a book on relations between Pakistan and Iran, commented, “There is a large pool to draw from. “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.”
“The message Iran is recruiting with, like it or not, is a sectarian message. That is an inherently dangerous and can get out of hand,” added Vatanka.
The Pakistani Shias are the latest recruits to fight in Syria. Iran previously recruited the Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon and members of the Shia in Iraq. Tehran also recruited the ethnic Hazara Shia minority in Afghanistan. Iran deployed all of these Shia fighters to defend President al-Assad.
The Zeinaboyoun group praises Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini on its Facebook page and talks about its duty in defending the Zeinab shrine.
Iran is promising Iranian citizenship or steady monthly income as a recruitment strategy. Last week, one recruitment ad on Facebook indicated that any man between 18 to 35 years old and physically fit should apply to fight in Syria. The salary is Rs 120,000 per month with 15 days of vacation every three months. The applicant will undergo an initial military training of 45 days and six months of further training in Syria.
Iran will pay for the education of the children of a recruit killed in action, and his family will be given pilgrimage trips to Iran, Iraq, and Syria every year.