Shi’ite fighters who have lost their lives in Syria have long been eulogized on websites linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. But there was a difference with the two men lauded last month for dying to defend a shrine near Damascus: They hailed from Pakistan.
The men were part of the Zeinabiyoun, the latest focus of an Iranian push to recruit Shi’a from across the region to fight in Syria. The Zeinabiyoun are a unit of Pakistani fighters named for a granddaughter of Prophet Mohammad said to be buried in the shrine.
The group has posted an increasing number of “martyrdom” notices, suggesting the Zeinabiyoun are taking a more active role in the conflict. One post in November on social media showed the photos of 53 men described as fighters killed in battle.
No official numbers have been released; however, a regional source said hundreds of Pakistanis are currently fighting in Syria.
Syria’s ongoing civil war, now in its fourth year, has deepened sectarian divisions across the Muslim world and drawn in most regional and global powers. Iran’s recruitment of Pakistani fighters adds yet another international dimension.
The Pakistani Shi'a are helping to defend the government of Tehran's ally, President Bashar al-Assad, who is also supported by Russian air strikes and fighters from Lebanon's Hezbollah militia, against an array of Sunni rebels backed by Turkey and Arab states. The United States, Turkey, and Arab and European powers are also participating in a coalition bombing Islamic State, a Sunni Muslim militant group.
"The Zeinabiyoun are a Pakistani Shi'ite outfit that's run by the IRGC," said Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland and adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has done extensive research on Shi'ite groups fighting in Syria, using an acronym to refer to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. "They've put together their own imagery, their own 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."
Despite the vast majority of its population being Sunni Muslims, Pakistan is home to one of the biggest Shi’ite communities in the world.
"There is a large pool to draw from," said Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington and the author of a book on relations between Iran and Pakistan. "There are pockets within that Shi'ite community that have been willing to pick up arms to fight for their Shi'ite identity, their sectarian identity. And that's what the IRGC is tapping into."
Social media has also indicated that Zeinabiyoun fighters have been active around Aleppo as well as at the shrine near Damascus in the past month. Based on material posted online, Smyth estimated the Zeinabiyoun could have up to 1,000 fighters.
The Zeinabiyoun have drawn on the symbols of fellow Shi'ite fighters to brand themselves. Their logo, a fist holding a machine gun set in green and yellow, is almost identical to that of Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Zeinabiyoun are occasionally referred to as Hezbollah Pakistan online.
The group makes no secret of its loyalties. Its Facebook pages praise Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and refer to a sense of duty to defend the Sayyida Zeinab shrine.
A Zeinabiyoun image posted on Instagram shows the crosshairs of a gun trained on the back of a man with the slogan "I will kill any takfiri Wahhabis I can find," in Farsi. Wahhabism is a strict form of Sunni Islam and the state sect of Iran's main rival in the region, Saudi Arabia. Takfiris are Sunni Islamists who brand other Muslims heretics.
"The message Iran is recruiting with is, like it or not, a sectarian message," Vatanka said. "That is a message that is inherently dangerous and can get out of hand."
According to the group's online posts, some of the Pakistanis fighting in Syria already resided in Iran while others come from a community of Pashtun Shi'a in the town of Parachinar in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
The Zeinbayioun started out as part of a unit of Afghan fighters called the Fatemiyoun, Smyth said. The Fatemiyoun have experienced heavy losses in Syria, which hard-line Iranian sites regularly cover.
Promises of Iranian citizenship or a steady monthly income have lured some fighters from Afghanistan, and there have been similar advertisements online aimed at Pakistanis.
One such recruitment campaign, posted last week on Facebook, called for physically fit men between the ages of 18 and 35 to apply to fight in Syria. It offered 45 days of initial military training along with six months of further training in Syria, a salary of 120,000 Pakistani rupees (approximately $1,100) a month and 15 days’ holiday every three months.
Furthermore, the ad promised that if a recruit is killed in action, his children's education will be paid for and his family given annual pilgrimage trips to Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Any willing recruits should make their way to Iran's holy city of Qom, the ad said, and a phone number was provided.
The Afghan and Pakistani recruits help make up for the withdrawal of Iraqi Shi'ite militia units, who were called home last year to help fight Islamic State there.
"It's clear that they (Afghan and Pakistani recruits) had to accept that role from the Iraqi Shi'ites who were pulled out," Smyth said.
Vatanka described the mission as an "ideological project" for the Revolutionary Guard, promoting Shi'ite solidarity in other countries in the region. "Given the limitations of how much it can recruit at home, the Revolutionary Guard needs to shore up support in like-minded communities, which they have been pretty good at in the course of the Islamic Republic's history."
With reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh for Reuters