Very little is written in Pakistan about the Zainebiyoun, a brigade comprising of Pakistani Shia fighters trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) and currently fighting for the Assad regime in Syria.
The recruits for the brigade are largely drawn from Shia Hazaras originally from Balochistan and the Shias of Parachinar and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
According to sources, the number of Pakistanis deployed in this brigade could be as high as 1000.
The brigade, named after Zainab, the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad, has been largely operating in the Syrian cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Daraa and Hama. Their primary task is to protect Shia shrines from attacks of the ISIS.
Though the Zainebiyoun was formed around 2015, Pakistani Shias were being inducted into the Fatemiyoun from 2013 onwards.
The Fatemiyoun Division, comprising mainly of Afghan Shias, has been fighting alongside Syrian government forces against the ISIS from 2013 onwards. In fact, after the Hizbullah of Lebanon, the Fatemiyoun perhaps has the largest presence of foreign fighters in Syria, estimated to be 20,000 Afghan fighters.
Interviews of Afghan Shias who have returned to Afghanistan after serving in the Fatemiyoun in Syria, indicate that Iran provides military training to Afghan and Pakistani Shiites both in Iran and inside Syria. The IRGC reportedly provides a four-week, pre-deployment training to Zainebiyouan and Fatemiyoun combatants at 'special training bases' inside Iran. There are known to be nine such training camps in Iran. Each combatant is lured into this brigade with the hope of being granted a permanent residency of Iran, a hefty monthly pay of USD 1200 per month and payment for education of the combatants' children, in case of his death.
As per accounts of active members of the Zainebiyoun, many of them were driven to join the brigade and take up the Shia cause outside their own country after they witnessed the persecution of Shias in Pakistan.
While the urban elite Shias remain unharmed because of their class and alignment with the Pakistani military establishment, the vast majority of the poor, disadvantaged Shia Muslims in Pakistan remain victims of frequent suicide attacks and target killing by ISI-sponsored groups like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and other radical Sunni groups.
Iran has been using this sense of alienation among the middle class and poor Shias in Pakistan, to project itself as the sole protector of Shias worldwide. The arrival of the ISIS has allowed Iran to use its Shia militias to gain a foothold in several countries of the Middle East. There is little doubt that once the ISIS threat in Syria & Iraq is over, these militias or proxy armies will be used by Iran to further its geo-political ambitions in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
When Pakistani COAS Gen Qamar Bajwa visited Iran recently, it is unlikely that he considered it important to raise this issue with the Iranian leaders. However, if Iran's proactive policy in the Middle East is any indication, Pakistan may soon have to deal with Iran trained Shia proxies in its western borders.