In International relations (IR) there are no permanent friend and no permanent enemies only permanent interests. Geo-politics and International relations approaches in the world quickly changed after 9/11. The idea of World war and bipolar alliances got fizzled out. Arab spring served as a catalyst in this emerging trend. This approach not only changed the geo-politics but also changed the nature of warfare in the world, non-kinetic and hybrid warfare managed to sneeze in. After the US intervention in number of countries in the Middle East, the region went into to struggle for power and resources, where every country is fighting for its own interests. One of which is Iran. Iran quickly changed its policy in this rapidly evolving world politics when it covertly supported the US invasion of Afghanistan.
Afterwards during the early period of Iraq war Iran covertly backed the fight against US but later Iran realized that it is of no use. Iran realized that one not only need some military means but also need supportive political structure to expand its influence in any region. Post 1979 Iran pan-Islamic approach got popular in Muslim countries but over the years it turned out to be counter-productive for overall Islamic world due to the changing regional dynamics. Iran collaborated with US in Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran used that leverage to expand its influence in both countries. As we mentioned above that Arab spring served as a catalyst in these changing regional dynamics revolving around Middle East. After the Arab spring Iran managed to get enough political influence to expand its military arm to secure and safeguard its interests in different countries. In Syria Iran displayed a successful application of this new approach. Iranian Revolutionary guard corps (IRGC) started establishing several brigades (militias) to fight against ISIS in Syrian and Iraq. Among those, two organizations were South Asia based. One is “Fatimiyyoun” Brigade comprised of Afghanistan’s ethnic Hazara minority and other is “Zainabiyyoun” Brigade comprising fighters from Pakistan. Recently dozens of fighters of these two-organization were killed in Turkish army operation in Idlib and Aleppo, Syria.
(11 Pakistani Zainabiyoun fighters and 10 Afghan Fatemiyoun fighters) Just like all other times it got little coverage in both countries due to powerful Iranian influenced media and political atmosphere. Even recent Turkey-Syria standoff is getting very limited coverage in Pakistan. Media censorship is not the reason because Pakistan despite opposing any regime change, reaffirmed its support for Turkey’s humanitarian and security concerns. This is serious business for Pakistan if Iran is having this much influence in Pakistan and this is going to hunt Pakistan down in the coming years because the Turkey-Syria standoff is going to have implications beyond Syria. Zainabiyoun Brigade remains one of the most under studied militant group operating in the region maybe due to its small size and limited role, if we ignore organized media control. But over the years it has expanded its role as well as size. According to some reports the group has recruited nearly 1,500 fighters, from inside and outside of Pakistan, including Pakistani students in Iran. The group recruited in Pakistan from Parachinar, southern parts of Punjab, Karachi, Quetta. As per the advertisement posted by the group online each fighter is paid Rs 120,000 and 15 days of holidays after every 3 months. If killed, would be buried with honor in Iran and the family would get Iranian citizenship. That is why all of its fighters killed were buried in Qom, Iran. This is alarming for Pakistan because these are not any ordinary men but are trained battle-hardened militias who can do anything for achieving Iran’s geo-political ambitions. First major news about the organization came to surface in June 2014, when three Zainabiyoun fighters were killed during the fight against ISIS in Iraq. As per publicly accessible documents, around 137 of its fighters were killed in Syria though the actual number is likely slightly higher. Leave its future implications, Iran backed Zainabiyyon has already brought problems back at home. Over the years different terrorist groups including ISIS and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi launched Mutiple suicide attacks in Pakistan alleged targeting Zainabiyoun. In one of these attacks in December 2015, which resulted in the death of 23 people in Parachinar. Terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi claimed responsibility, and said that it was “revenge [for] the crimes against Syrian Muslims by Iran and Bashar al-Assad” and threatened continued terror attacks if Parachinar citizens did not “stop sending people to take part in Syrian war”. Pakistan often tries to cover up Iran’s role in backing anti-state and illegal activities in Pakistan but there is a long list of Iran direct or indirect role in such activities. Pakistan don’t want to halt relations that’s why it keeps denying that on the diplomatic level but facts can’t deny Iran’s role be it in Kulbhushan Yadav (Raw spy in Pakistan) case or be it Uzair Baloch and Karachi gang war. Zainabiyoun was also alleged involved in the terrorist attack on Mufti Taqi Usmani of Dar Ul Uloom. Pakistani Law and enforcement agencies carried out multiple intelligences-based operations against the Zainabiyon birgade. Just in Februray,2020 Counter terrorism department arrested two of high-profile members of the Zainabiyoun Brigade from Karachi. Apart from the counter terrorism operations, FIA anti-human trafficking cell is also closely monitoring the group activities and is tasked to stop the recruitment. But the regional dynamics are changing, and things are getting complex and complicated. This is adding new dimension to Post-US with drawl theater. These two organizations (Zainabiyoun and Fatemiyoun) can turn out to be game changer for Iran’s covert operations in South-Asia. Another interesting but concerning and alarming part is that Iran appointed Brigadier General Ismail Ghaani as commander of the Quds Force of Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) after the death of IRGC chief Soleimani in US drone strike. Brigadier General Ismail Ghaani was handling activities related to Pakistan and Afghanistan, that including recruitment, training, funding, transporting fighters from Afghanistan under Fatimiyyoun Brigade and from Pakistan under Zainabiyyoun brigade. This means that he was the master mind behind all these activities. No doubt that Turkey’s operation in Idlib, Syria is going to have to implication beyond Syria. Iranian backed militias are new emerging security and social threat both for Pakistan and Afghanistan. But this is also an opportunity to enhance cooperation in fields of counter terrorism and intelligence sharing.
Courtesy: The Article was initially published in Global Village Space.
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Author: Talha Ahmad (Editor in Chief PSF)
About Author: Talha Ahmad is a Freelance Journalist. He is an independent Geo-Political Analyst, commentator, and keen observer of International relations. Talha Ahmad opinions have been featured in different News-websites like Daily times, Pakistan Today, Global Village Space, Morning Mail. He can be reached on twitter @talhahamad967.
Note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Pakistan Strategic Forum.