April 28, 2016
There has seen tens of thousands of foreign fighters from an enormous range of countries across the world in Syria. There has been enormous flurry of media coverage on foreign ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra fighters and their role in the war. The involvement of Iranian backed foreign Shia militias in Syria such as the Iraqi Harakat al-Nujaba or the Afghan Fatemiyoun Brigade has been documented by the media to some extent as well. These Shia militias play a key role in supporting the Syrian government, especially in light of the critical manpower shortage the Syrian government faces. In recent years Iran has begun to recruit Pakistani Shia to fight for the Syrian government. These Pakistani Shia fight in a militia known as the Zainebiyoun Brigade. Pakistan has been largely absent from the discussion on foreign fighters in Syria.
Over the past 15 years Pakistan has seen a massive increase in religious sectarianism, resulting in significant persecution of Shia, Christian, Hindu and Ahmadi minorities. A variety of both Deobandi and Salafi Islamist groups operate in Pakistan. Many of these groups target Shia in sectarian terrorist attacks. From 1987 to 2007 at least 4,000 people died as a result of Shia-Sunni sectarian conflict in Pakistan. The rise of sectarianism in Pakistan makes it easier for Iran to recruit fighters and expand operations in the country. While it is highly unlikely that sectarianism in Pakistan will completely undermine the foundations of the state given the presence of a strong centralized military and government (indeed over the past 2 years the situation seems to be improving), it may provide a significant recruitment ground of Shia fighters for Iran. In this write-up we will examine the Zainebiyoun Brigade and discuss who they are. We will also conduct a rough estimation of the group’s casualty rates.
WHAT IS THE ZAINEBIYOUN BRIGADE?
The Zainebiyoun Brigade is entirely Iranian backed and is likely under the jurisdiction of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Like its much larger Afghan counterpart the Fatemiyoun Brigade, the group is an Iranian proxy force in Syria. The exact date when the brigade was created is unclear, though it was at one point part of the Fatemiyoun Brigade. Zainebiyoun has also been called a part of “Hezbollah Pakistan” though it is unclear if this is actually the case. Pakistani Hazara (refugees from Afghanistan) appear to be a large component in the group. This would explain why the group’s Facebook page posts in a mix of Farsi/Dari and Urdu. The level of equipment spotted with group varies drastically, some members are fairly well equipped and others seem to be armed with only a rifle and nothing else.
Unfortunately we have little knowledge of the number of fighters the group has, though they are certainly much smaller than the Fatemiyoun Brigade. We were able to collect some data regarding possible casualty counts for the group. Bringing back caskets to Pakistan for burial is likely not possible so often times the dead fighters are buried in Iran. Furthermore we were able to use propaganda and martyrdom posters released by the group to get an idea of the casualties from the group.
Using data taken primarily from various Facebook pages we were able to calculate a rough count of the number of casualties the group has taken over the past 5 months. This data is likely not entirely accurate and it is highly likely that many deaths are not listed as the fighters were buried in Syria rather than Iran. However, it serves at least as a rough estimate at the casualty rate faced by this group in Syria. Given the roughness of this data, we appreciate any corrections or other estimates put out by other analysts.
The Zainebiyoun Brigade may be a small group that plays an insignificant role in the broader outcome of the Syrian Civil War, but it’s a start of sectarianism in Pakistan (and South Asia as a whole) being tied into sectarian conflicts in the Middle East. The entrance of Iranian influence into Pakistan may exacerbate sectarian tensions that already are present in Pakistan. More research needs to be done on this topic and in that pursuit of that goal we have submitted a FOIA request to attempt to shed some more light on the Zainebiyoun Brigade.