Recent Syrian government advances in Aleppo could not have happened without the assistance of foreign fighters from around the region. They have provided the much needed manpower that government forces require and as a result, have become very visible on the battlefields of Syria, especially Aleppo, however although much is known about the Iranians, Lebanese, Iraqis and even Afghans little is known about the Pakistanis fighting in the organisation Liwa Zainebiyoun. Who are they and what are they doing in Syria?
Pakistani fighters first started appearing in Syria in November 2014. At first, the Pakistanis were so small in number that unlike their Afghan counterparts (Fatemiyoun Brigade) they did not have a brigade of their own with members fighting for the Quds force or Revolutionary Guards Corps directly, however, that wasn’t for long as by early 2015 they had a brigade to call their own.
Called Liwa Zainebiyoun this fighting force draws most of its manpower mainly from Pakistani Shia based in Iran. Evidenced by the fact that funeral services are almost always held in Iran. However, there is also evidence that some Shia Pakistanis are coming all the way from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province to fight in Syria. These Pakistanis, having watched the crimes ISIS committed in Syria and Iraq against the Shia population, were motivated to stop ISIS before they consolidated their hold in Syria/Iraq and turned their attention to Pakistan itself. Of course Pakistan is no stranger to anti-Shia violence, 20 people were killed in the Shia town of Parachinar only recently, leading Iran to in fact discourage further travel to Syria instead encouraging Pakistan-based volunteers to use their training to defend themselves against the anti-Shia militants at home.
Iran turning away Pakistan-based volunteers has however not decreased the number of Pakistanis in Syria. Their number has actually increased since the Russian intervention. This can be seen in their total fatalities, with most occurring in the last five months. Since appearing in Syria at the end of 2014 they have fought all over Syria. Although starting out primarily around Damascus (Sayida Zienab Shrine) like the groups before them, most have ended up in Aleppo, one of the most important battlefields in Syria. The foreign legion that Iran has assembled has been critical to the successes on the ground in Aleppo. Iranian, Lebanese, Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani frontline fighters have provided the needed manpower to capitalise on Russian airstrikes, their skill and training make them some of the best fighters on the Syrian battlefield.
Robert Fisk during his recent visit to the frontlines in Aleppo Syria estimated the number of Pakistanis at “several hundred” fighters which indicates they are a visible presence on the battlefield. Looking at open-source data between November 2014 and March 2016, it appears they have had at least 69 fatalities with most occurring after the Russian intervention. Although taking fewer casualties than other pro-government foreign groups the fact that most have occurred after September indicates the increasing number of Pakistanis in Syria.
Although a ceasefire has come into effect in Syria, the exclusion of Nusra and ISIS – two of the biggest fighting groups in Syria – means there is unlikely to be much of a decrease in fighting. As government forces seek to capture Raqqa from ISIS and Idlib from the Nusra Front they are going to need as many fighters as possible which means the presence of Pakistani fighters on the Syrian battlefield is only likely to increase.