In January 2018, the Islamic Republic of Iran experienced a week of intense antigovernment protests in approximately eighty cities throughout the country. Before they were eventually suppressed—with over 4,000 people arrested and twenty-five killed in the process—tens of thousands of Iranian citizens frustrated by economic malaise and political and social repression took to the streets. They chanted slogans such as “Let Syria be, think about our plight,” and “Neither Gaza, nor Lebanon, let my life be sacrificed for Iran.” These and similar slogans referred to the Islamic Republic’s multibillion dollar economic and military assistance to its regional allies. Despite the growing resentment this assistance has spurred at home, Tehran is unlikely to reassess its long-term regional strategies.
As one of the largest and most populous countries in the Middle East, Iran has naturally sought to fill the numerous power vacuums that emerged in the region as a result of the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, coupled with ongoing Arab upheavals. The cultivation of Shia foreign legions has been a critical element of this strategy, helping Tehran expand its influence in the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories), Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen. It has often expanded its footprint under the pretext of fighting (Sunni) radicalism.
While antigovernment protests may have humbled Iran domestically, Tehran seemingly remains confident about its regional prowess. In a November 2017 letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Major General Qassem Suleimani—Iran’s most powerful military commander who oversees the extraterritorial operations of the Quds Force unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)—reportedly wrote, “As I am completing the operation liberating Abu Kamal [a Syrian town bordering Iraq], the last bastion of ISIS [the self-proclaimed Islamic State extremist group], I am declaring the end of this evil and cursed organization.” Suleimani’s letter goes on to express gratitude to “Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian, Lebanese, Afghan, and Pakistani guardians of the shrine”—Islamic Republic lingo for Shia foreign fighters in Syria—who sacrifice their lives defending the “life and honor of Muslims.” Responding to Suleimani’s letter, Khamenei too offered thanks to “holy warrior brethren from Iraq, Syria, and others,” and congratulated them on their victory.
People from these countries have a history of helping to fight in the Islamic Republic’s wars. Of the approximately 250,000 Iranians killed during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988), 4,565 were foreign nationals killed wearing Iranian uniforms. Most of them were Shia Afghan immigrants to Iran, Shia Iraqi refugees in Iran, or Shia Iraqi prisoners of war who had joined the Badr Corps of the IRGC, which Tehran had created after the 1979 revolution. A much smaller number were Pakistani, Indian, Bahraini, and Kuwaiti Shia who volunteered to support the war effort.
Since January 2012, almost the same nationalities have provided the bulk of Shia foreign fighters under Suleimani’s command in Syria and Iraq. Based on a meticulous reading of press reports of funeral services held in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon for Shia foreign fighters killed in Syria and Iraq, 535 Iranian nationals were killed in combat in Syria between January 2012 and January 2018. In comparison, at least 841 Afghan, 112 Iraqi, 1,213 Lebanese, and 153 Pakistani Shia foreign fighters were killed fighting in Syria during the same period (see figure 1).1
In Iraq, this author only registered 3 Shia Pakistani nationals and 42 Iranian nationals killed in combat between March 2013 and January 2018. During the same period, a minimum 2,433 Shia Iraqi nationals were killed in that country.
These numbers must of course be treated as the absolute minimum that can be documented using open-source information, and the real numbers may be somewhat higher. The real Iraqi numbers are doubtlessly significantly higher, and are gradually released to the public as Iraqi authorities get a better grasp on the magnitude of their losses.
Regardless of the exact scale of the losses, closer scrutiny of Iran’s Shia foreign legions offers a fuller picture of who they are, how Tehran uses them to further its strategic interests, and what the limits to their usefulness are.
Chief and oldest among the Islamic Republic’s Shia foreign legions is Hezbollah, which has become the most powerful political actor in Lebanon and the most formidable military force in the Levant. Hezbollah is also the Iranian ally with the highest total number of combat fatalities in Syria. At a minimum, 1,213 Hezbollah fighters, including 75 officers, have been killed in combat in Syria since the first was killed on September 30, 2012.
Hezbollah’s leadership initially dismissed reports that it had a military presence in Syria. Given that its raison d’être has always been resistance against Israel, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah naturally had difficulties explaining why it was fighting fellow Arabs in Syria on Iran’s behalf. But as funeral services in Lebanon for Hezbollah fighters received greater press coverage, the militia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad came to embrace Hezbollah’s military presence in Syria.
Tehran initially preferred to deploy Hezbollah forces—rather than Iranian forces—in Syria. A comparison of the dates when Iranian and Lebanese nationals were killed in combat in Syria further suggests that Hezbollah fighters were not fighting under Iranian command, and instead operated independently of the Quds Force (see figure 2).
Hezbollah’s high mortality rate in Syria forced Tehran to deploy the IRGC and quickly assemble additional Shia militias, allowing Hezbollah to maintain a sizable domestic presence in Lebanon. A significant weakening of Hezbollah forces could tempt rival Lebanese militias to challenge their dominance. Hezbollah also faces formidable challenges on its southern flank: the Israeli Air Force has on several occasions bombed arms transports from Syria to Lebanon, and it cannot disregard the risk that the Israel Defense Forces will take advantage of Hezbollah’s engagement in the Syrian civil war to attack the militia’s positions in Lebanon. This risk only increases as Hezbollah expands its arsenal and Israel feels further threatened.
The preservation of the Assad regime demonstrates Hezbollah’s capacity as a formidable Iranian proxy. But the tenuous balance of power in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s inherent vulnerabilities to Israel, and the need for larger-scale deployments of IRGC and allied Shia militias in Syria reflect the limits of Hezbollah’s capabilities.
The Afghan Fatemiyoun Division
With 841 combat fatalities since the first on August 23, 2013, the Afghan Fatemiyoun Division has suffered the second-largest number of losses in Syria among Tehran’s Shia foreign legions. According to the official Islamic Republic historiography, reflected in the Kayhan newspaper,the Fatemiyoun Division was established by Ali-Reza Tavassoli and twenty-five of his friends. They volunteered to fight in Syria to protect the Sayyida Zaynab Mosque—a prominent Shia pilgrimage site in the suburbs of Damascus. Kayhan further claims that Tavassoli managed to mobilize about 5,000 Shia Afghan nationals who were already residents of Damascus.
Kayhan’saccount is false. Tavassoli moved to Iran in 1984 to join the Abouzar Brigade, which was the Afghan branch of the IRGC’s Office of Liberation Movements (Daftar-e Nehzatha-ye Rahaei-Bakhsh)—a precursor of the Quds Force. After the end of the war with Iraq, Tavassoli spent some time in Afghanistan fighting against the Taliban in the 1990s and was in Lebanon during the 2006 war. There is, however, no evidence that Tavassoli resided permanently in Afghanistan, let alone mobilized Afghan nationals for the war effort in Syria.
Apart from this, all slain Shia Afghan fighters are buried in Iran. This suggests the IRGC recruited them in exchange for permanent residence permits and Iranian citizenship for their families
Kayhan’s claim that the Fatemiyoun Division operates independently from Iranian forces is also false. The Fatemiyoun Division is an integral part of the IRGC Quds Force. This is demonstrated by the fact that there are Quds Force officers, including midlevel commanders, among the Fatemiyoun losses.
The Islamic Republic’s ability to mobilize a significant Shia Afghan force to fight in Syria may allow Tehran to one day employ these same forces to further its interests in Afghanistan. But the Fatemiyoun Division’s disproportionately high casualties and reliance on Iranian midlevel commanders reflect its limited usefulness for Tehran.
The Pakistani Zeinabiyoun Brigade
Little is known about the Shia Pakistani Zeinabiyoun Brigade, which has reportedly suffered 153 combat fatalities in Syria and three in Iraq. Hiding from the prying eyes of Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, this militia avoids the limelight. According to a Fars News Agency background article from July 24, 2016, this militia was formed not so much because of the civil war in Syria, but in the wake of systematic persecution of the Shia minority in Pakistan.
The July 23, 2016, issue of Panjereh weekly, which is no longer available to the public but was posted online by Martyr Rahimi International Institute on March 3, 2017, expanded on the Fars News report. In an interview, a man called Abbas, reportedly the chief Zeinabiyoun commander Seyed Abbas Mousavi, claimed that Pakistani Shia have been in touch with the IRGC Quds Force “for almost fifteen years.” That puts the beginning of the relationship around the time of the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and the collapse of Taliban rule. Abbas further claimed that the Pakistani Shia wrote a letter to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei asking for his opinion concerning their participation in the war in Syria, to which Khamenei orally responded: “Whoever is capable of performing duty, should do it to the best of his ability.”
However, al-Mustafa University in Qom, Iran, seems to be the real recruiting ground for Pakistani Shia fighters. This author has identified several Shia Pakistani graduates from this particular university among the Zeinabiyoun fatalities in Syria.
That said, the relatively low number of Zeinabiyoun combat fatalities in Syria is an indicator of the small size of the militia in comparison with other Shia militias and its limited usefulness in Iran’s regional power projection.
Shia Iraqi Militias
The Islamic Republic’s support for Iraqi Shia militias dates back to the 1979 revolution and Tehran’s creation of the Badr Corps of the IRGC, composed of Iraqi refugees and prisoners of war. Ever since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Tehran has ostensibly sought to encourage Iraqi Shia unity, but Iran simultaneously encourages and contributes to the formation of numerous Shia militia groups in Iraq.
While most of these armed groups are now formally organized under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hashd al-Shaabi), they have remained independent entities outside the control of the civilian government in Baghdad. The rivalry between Iraqi Shia may not necessarily be detrimental to Tehran’s agenda. Lack of unity between Iraqi Shia has provided the Islamic Republic with ample opportunities to shape Iraqi politics. This also makes Iran’s Qassem Suleimani a central player in Iraqi politics, and the authority to whom Iraqi Shia militiamen defer.
Apart from their significant casualties in Iraq—the real magnitude of which remains unclear—the Iraqi Shia seem to have suffered very few losses in Syria. The relatively low number suggests their combat participation in the Syrian civil war primarily serves political propaganda rather than military purposes. It not only communicates the message of transnational Shia solidarity under Tehran’s guidance, but also sends a message that the IRGC and its proxies can simultaneously engage in combat operations in two different theaters of war—Iraq and Syria—and have been doing so since 2015.
Iran’s Shia Foreign Legions Shape the Strategic Environment
Almost four decades after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the regime in Tehran is facing the mixed results of its revolutionary activities.
On the one hand, the Shia militias that the regime patiently cultivated over the years have helped Iran’s allies project power by force, via the ballot box, or both, in fractured societies with dysfunctional governments. This is not just a burden-sharing arrangement reducing the number of Iranian combat fatalities in regional wars. It also brings Tehran’s allies into government offices and secures for the Islamic Republic an overland corridor connecting western Afghanistan in Central Asia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria to Lebanon on the shores of the Mediterranean.
Iran’s regional adversaries have only a limited ability to turn to radical Sunni militias to counter the Islamic Republic’s expansionism, given that many Sunni militants are intent on overthrowing Sunni Arab regimes, including Saudi Arabia. However, the combined forces of the Islamic Republic’s Shia foreign legions and the Russian Air Force seem to have prevailed, at least for the time being.
Yet, on the other hand, the repercussions of Iran’s regional adventures are a source of growing domestic resentment, provoking antiregime protests that target the Islamic Republic’s financial and military support to those same Shia militias. For the time being, the Islamic Republic seems to have suppressed the antigovernment protests, and there is no indication of the regime backing down from its regional ambitions or reducing the support it provides to its Shia foreign legions. This in turn is likely to ignite the next round of antiregime protests, and the very source of the Islamic Republic’s regional power may become a threat to its survival at home.
Ali Alfoneh is a nonresident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.
1 The exact number of Shia foreign fighters killed in combat in Syria is not known. On March 6, 2017, Hojjat al-Eslam Seyyed Mohammad-Ali Shahidi Mahallati, the director of the Martyr’s Foundation, formally announced that 2,100 Shia foreign fighters had been killed in Syria. This number corresponds fairly well with numbers provided in this essay. “Tedad-e Shohada-ye Modafe-e Haram Elam Shod” [The number of martyred defenders of the shrine was announced], Mashregh News (Tehran) March 6, 2017, available in Persian at: goo.gl/tPbrBR (accessed January 15, 2018).