Where Is Assad Getting His Fighters From? (It's Not Just Lebanon and Iraq)
In early December, senior Trump administration officials suggested that approximately 80 percent of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s defense against insurgents in the country’s ongoing civil war is being provided by forces imported from outside of the country. The lion’s share of these fighters is being trained and equipped by Iran, the Assad regime’s most ardent supporter.
Interestingly, however, these foreign fighters, almost of all which are Shia Muslims, are not merely comprised of Lebanese and Iraqis, but include significant numbers of militants from South Asia—mainly Afghanistan and Pakistan—which adds an entirely new dimension to Syria’s ongoing civil war, now entering its seventh year.
As the civil war in Syria drags on, the Assad regime has been plagued by casualties and desertions. Many of its fighters have been killed or injured on the battlefield and to make up for these manpower shortages, the regime has looked to Iran to help recruit new fighters. Iran has been able to leverage the sectarian nature of the conflict in Syria to help rally Afghans living in Iran as refugees, of which there are approximately three million.
The Afghan fighters belong to a division known as Liwa Fatemiyoun, which is under the command and control of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and according to official Iranian sources, numbers between 10,000 to 12,000 fighters. Many of these militants have experienced major combat action in Syria in Aleppo, Deraa, Damascus, Latakia and the Qalamoun region. Some reports indicate that hundreds have already died fighting in Syria.
Some fighters are purely mercenaries motivated by money, and some are enticed by promises of legal residency status and residency permits for their families back in Iran. Others are induced by the honorific “defenders of the shrine,” believing it is a religious duty to protect holy Shia shrines in Syria, including the shrine of Sayyida Zainab, revered by Shia Muslims as it supposedly contains the grave of the Prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter. In many cases, recruitment standards appear to be quite low. Criminals and other undesirables are oftentimes among the regime forces, considered the equivalent of cannon fodder by Assad, where they are dispatched to the frontlines in Syria.
In addition to Afghans, Pakistani Shia foreign fighters are also now fighting in their own distinct unit in Syria, known as the Liwa Zaynabiyoun. This represents a major evolution from earlier stages in the conflict when Pakistani Shia where routinely integrated with other units, since they often lacked the numbers and training to be effective on the battlefield. Starting in 2013, substantial numbers of Pakistani Shia from the Turi tribe of the Kurram tribal region and ethnic Hazaras from Quetta began to arrive in Syria. Around this same time, Urdu-language websites and social media pages proliferated urging Pakistani Shia to join the growing network of foreign fighters in Syria to defend the Assad regime against fighters from the Islamic State and other terrorist and insurgent groups active throughout the country.
Most analysis from Western think tanks and universities on foreign fighters tends to focus on the threat posed by Sunni jihadists linked to the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. But the growth of the Iranian Shia foreign fighter network also presents a major challenge to the international community, and perhaps an even more dire long-term obstacle to the stability of the Middle East. The IRGC and its proxy force, the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, are training Afghan and Pakistani Shia in weaponry, tactical movement and even tank warfare.