Iran silently recruiting Pakistani Shiites to fight in Syria: Reports

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Iran recruits Pakistani ‘volunteers’ for its Zainebiyoun Brigade. (Photo courtesy Zainabiyoun division Twitter account)
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Updated 24 September 2017
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Iran silently recruiting Pakistani Shiites to fight in Syria: Reports

ISLAMABAD: Three months ago, the Pakistani city of Parachinar experienced its third deadly attack so far this year by Daesh-linked militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al-Alami (LeJ), which said the assault was in response to support for Iranian-backed militias in Syria.
“This is propaganda,” Ali Afzal, a journalist and resident of Parachinar, told Arab News. “There’s no (Shiite) recruitment happening. That’s all in Iran, not here. This place has a strong army presence, with security surveillance around the clock. We border Afghanistan, and it’s unlikely that a recruiter would walk in and take people from here to Iran. Do you know how many checkpoints he’d need to cross?”
But a suicide bomber did enter the city, killing more than 70 people. Fourteen suspects were arrested by Pakistani security forces, while the mastermind is still at large.
LeJ warned the local Shiite community of “dire consequences” if it did not stop tainting its hands with the blood of Daesh fighters in Syria. This led to widespread reports that agents of Iran are discreetly recruiting Pakistani Shiites.
It is hard to ascertain the authenticity of these reports, since Pakistani officials are silent over the issue.
“Iran is recruiting from wherever it can,” said Maj. Ashfaq Hussain Bukhari, a retired army officer who is in charge of Markazi Imambargha (the Shiite Congregation Center) in Islamabad.
“It targets impoverished or fanatic Shiites, preying on their sentiments and offering martyrdom in defense of Shiite holy sites.”
Bukhari said the Pakistani areas of Iranian interest to draft men are the southern parts of Punjab province, the port city of Karachi, the tribal belt and Baluchistan province.
Numerous social media platforms list Pakistani Shiite fighters in Syria, including their name, photo, hometown and father’s name, as a way to eulogize their devotion.
Pakistan’s Shiites comprise 5-20 percent of the country’s total population of 207 million, but the minority says it constitutes around 40 percent.
According to media reports citing unnamed Pakistani officials, Pakistani recruits — referred to as “volunteers” — are inducted into the Zainebiyoun Brigade.
They are offered up to $1,000 per month by emissaries operating undercover to avoid detection by the country’s spy and security agencies.
Since the brigade’s alleged inception in 2014, the number of Pakistani Shiites killed in Syria has spiked.
Last year, 39 Shiite fighters disguised as pilgrims were apprehended by security forces at the Taftan crossing on the Pakistan-Iran border, including some from Quetta, capital of Baluchistan province, said a Pakistani defense official. They were suspected of having links to the Zainebiyoun Brigade.
In February, a Pakistani coastal patrol arrested 13 suspects, including three Iranians, in boats illegally trying to enter Pakistani waters near Baluchistan, said Interior Ministry official Muhammad Abdullah Khalid.
Interrogation revealed that they were tasked with transporting fresh recruits from Pakistan to Syria.
Police arrested “two Shiite fighters recruited via Zainebiyoun” in March 2016 after their return to Quetta from Syria, Khalid added.
Adding to the mystery surrounding Islamabad’s silence, Defense Ministry sources told Arab News: “If this information (that Pakistanis are being recruited) is of public interest, we’ll give a response.”
The National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA), a federal agency that coordinates between all security departments, declined to comment.
An Interior Ministry source told Arab News that he is unawareness of Iranian-backed militias recruiting Pakistanis, saying: “It’s the first time I’ve heard of this.”
But security officials told Arab News that the lack of comment is due to the highly sensitive nature of the matter, which they fear could fan sectarian violence. There is only private acknowledgement.


Normality returns for some in Damascus after fighting ends

Updated 28 min 37 sec ago
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Normality returns for some in Damascus after fighting ends

  • Risks of being hit by bullets or shellfire near the capital has now ended
  • This was the first summer since 2011 without the sound of fighting in Damascus

DAMASCUS: Some people in the Syrian capital Damascus have been able to enjoy a semblance of normality since fighting in the area ended in May, but in the rubble of shattered, destitute towns nearby, life could not be more different.
Central Damascus was held by the government throughout the war and suffered much less damage than opposition-held areas — evidence of the huge gulf in fire power between the two sides.
Parts of the eastern Ghouta region just outside Damascus were all but flattened during a government offensive this spring to retake it from rebels.
When the area surrendered, tens of thousands of its people, both fighters and civilians, chose to leave eastern Ghouta under safe passage for opposition areas in northern Syria rather than come back under government rule. Others decided to stay.
The risk of being hit by bullets or shellfire near the capital has now ended, but conditions in central Damascus, with its relaxed nightlife and bustling business district, seem a world away from the hardship of eastern Ghouta.
President Bashar Assad’s success in the war owes much to Russia, which entered the war on his side in 2015, and whose soldiers are now a common sight in government-held areas.
Even during the fighting, people in Damascus would go out in the evenings to eat, drink and dance, but this summer, the bars and restaurants of the Old City were much busier.
“During the war, when bombs were falling, it could be days without customers, but we never stopped working,” said Dana, a 24-year-old bar tender, mixing a blue moon cocktail in a shaker.
Barber shops do good business and cafes spill out onto the cobbled streets of the Old City on weekend evenings.
This was the first summer since 2011 without the sound of fighting in Damascus. At a wedding outside the city, the noise came rather from student rock band Kibreet — a drummer, two guitarists and a singer.
The groom was carried on the shoulders of his friends and family, as people clapped around him. He swung his bride in his arms, her white dress billowing out behind.
Rubble and ruin
Only a few miles away, in the eastern Ghouta city of Douma, rubble is all around. In one bulletpocked building, a young man on the fifth floor was shovelling debris from a balcony, preparing the flat for re-use.
Entire streets seem destroyed. At one of the area’s biggest hospitals, where huge shell holes are blown into the walls, medics are still operating out of the basement.
A woman held up a small boy on a bed, grimacing as he waited for the doctor to give an injection. In the ravaged streets, a small boy pushed a cart selling cooked sweetcorn cobs between ruined buildings.
The fighting in Douma only ended a few months ago, but any significant reconstruction might be very distant.
Syria cannot afford a major rebuilding program. Its closest allies, Russia and Iran, seem unlikely to foot the bill. Western nations will pay no cash without a political transition.
In Al-Khalidiya district of Homs, retaken by the government in 2013, the slow nature of recovery is clear. Much of it is a ghost town, uninhabited and closed by the army.
In one area, boys played soccer near buildings so pancaked by bombs that the floors and ceilings hung down closely on top of each other. Their goal was made of two rusting oil drums with posts sticking up and a wire tied between them as the crossbar.
“The covered souk used to be chockablock but now very few people come to this area,” said Abu Fares, a shop owner in the Old City of Homs.
Even among the young people enjoying the nightlife in Damascus the challenge of the long, slow economic recovery ahead means many people are thinking of leaving.
“I like my job. I like bars and night life here. But in the end I would like to move out of Syria. I don’t see a future here,” said Rasha, a 30-year bar owner.
“When there was war here and we had bombs falling every day I never wanted to leave. But now, yes,” she said.