CDR (ret.) Eyal Pinko, Ph.D.
Pakistani intelligence worries about Shiite fighters, demobilized by Tehran
Updated: Aug 18, 2021
Iran has pulled some of its troops out of Syria as fighting has almost stopped. Pakistan is now concerned about returning Liwa Zainebiyoun militiamen, who have fought alongside Damascus since 2013. Islamabad dispatched its intelligence chiefs to Tehran to work out a way forward.
A delegation of Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence has returned from Tehran, where it met with Ali Shamkhan, secretary of the Supreme Council of National Security of Iran. The talks centered on the fate of the Liwa Zainebiyoun ("Brigade of Zainab's people"), a Shia Pakistani militia deployed in Syria since 2013. Iran's Pasdaran recruited, trained, and led Liwa Zainebiyoun alongside Bashar al-Assad's regime forces but now plan to demobilize the brigade as fighting in Syria lessens.
Pakistani intelligence chiefs, accompanied by interior ministry officials, wanted to learn of Iran's plans for the 5,000 to 7,000 Shiite fighters. Islamabad would prefer they not return home as they could exacerbate interfaith tensions in the majority Sunni country.
While Shamkhani assured that "a solution will be found so as not to undermine Iran and Pakistan's bilateral relations", most Liwa Zainebiyoun troops wish to return to their homeland Pakistan. Around a thousand have already managed to enter the country illegally, resulting in a vast police raid in early July and the arrest of some 300 fighters.
In June, the anti-terrorist department of the Punjab region dismantled a cell of seven Liwa Zainebiyoun men suspected of planning attacks against Sunni individuals. However, the ISI and the other two branches of Pakistani intelligence - the Intelligence Bureau and Military Intelligence - are keen to sever ties between the returnees and their Iranian contacts.
Looking to appease neighboring Pakistan, Iran has suggested different exit plans for its Pakistani proxies demobilized from Syria. One option is to have them reassigned to Yemen alongside pro-Tehran Houthi Shiite rebels. But only a tiny portion has reportedly accepted this new deployment, for which they are paid $300 to $500 per month.
Liwa Zainebiyoun members could also return to Iran, where they were trained. They could join the Basij, a paramilitary force, or the border guard corps, as did the Afghani fighters of the Fatimid Brigade