For years, websites linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard have posted articles eulogizing Shi’ite fighters who die in Syria. But two men heralded last month for dying to defend a shrine near Damascus were different from most martyrs given such treatment in the past: they were Pakistanis.
The men were part of the Zeinabiyoun, a unit of Pakistani fighters named for a granddaughter of the prophet Mohammad buried in the shrine, the latest contingent in an Iranian drive to recruit Shi’ites from the region to fight in Syria.
The increase in the number of “martyrdom” notices of fighters from the group this year indicates they are taking a more active role in the conflict. A posting in mid-November on a Twitter account bearing the group’s name displayed the pictures of 53 men, described as fighters killed in battle.
While there has been no official announcement of their total numbers, a regional source familiar with the issue said there were hundreds of Pakistanis fighting in Syria, many stationed around the shrine of Mohammad’s granddaughter Zeinab.
Iran’s recruitment of the Pakistani fighters adds yet another international dimension to Syria’s 4-year-old civil war, which has deepened sectarian divisions across the Muslim world and drawn in most regional and global powers.
The Pakistani Shi’ites 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, Arab and European powers are also participating in a coalition bombing Islamic State, a Sunni Muslim militant group.
A Facebook page bearing the name of the Zeinabiyoun showed pictures of what was described as a funeral in Iran in late November, with members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard standing next to men in shalwar kameez, the traditional long tunic and trousers worn in Pakistan.
“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.”
Although the vast majority of Pakistanis are Sunni Muslims, the country is home to millions of Shi’ite Muslims, making it among 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 Pakistan and Iran.
“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.”
They are only the latest Shi’ites recruited by Iran to fight in Syria, after Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, members of Iraq’s Shi’ite majority and members of Afghanistan’s ethnic Hazara Shi’ite minority. All have been deployed to support Assad, whose own Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
Videos and pictures posted on social media sites say Zeinabiyoun fighters have been active around Aleppo as well as at the shrine near Damascus in the last month.
Read more: Yahoo News