With the war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas crossing the 55-day mark, no breakthrough seems to be in sight that could bring hostilities to a stop despite the successful exchange of some hostages. As Palestinians in Gaza continue to face the brunt of Israeli military reaction to the terror attacks of 7 October orchestrated by Hamas, tensions over the crisis can increasingly be seen expanding into other theatres, particularly where Iran-supported militias are looking to act together as part of a ‘resistance’ narrative.
The recent attacks against commercial ships travelling through the Red Sea, a vital artery of global trade that connects Europe to Asia via the Suez Canal, by Houthi militants backed by Iran and operating out of Yemen showcases the range of the ongoing crisis. It expands well beyond just the Israel–Palestine fault line, and into the wider Israel–Iran rivalry with Tehran’s vocal promotion of an ‘Axis of Resistance’. “Your brothers in the Axis of Resistance stand united with you…the resistance will not allow the enemy to achieve its goals in Gaza and Palestine”, Esmaail Qaani, Commander of Iran’s Quds Force reportedly said last month while reiterating support for Hamas. Qaani had replaced now revered Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani as head of the Quds after the latter’s assassination in a United States (US) drone strike in January 2020. The web of militias across Iraq, Syria, and Yemen supported by Iran, now seen as a collective ‘resistance’, was Soleimani’s success story in the region over the past decade.
While groups such as the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq and Hamas in Gaza are often talked about as part of this Iran-backed resistance, there are smaller, lesser-known influence zones that Tehran can potentially tap into if this crisis expands. In Afghanistan, the Fatemiyoun Brigade and in Pakistan, the Zainabiyoun Brigade, are Shia militias that formed in and around the Syrian civil war which included fighting against the juggernaut of the Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh in Arabic). The Zainabiyoun’s foundations could be traced back to attacks against the Sayyidah Zaynab mosque in Damascus in 2015, which was targeted by Sunni militants, for which some of the first Pakistani Shias were recruited by Iran to fight. Shias make up only 10-15 percent of Pakistan’s population. The logo of the Zainabiyoun, which has not been very active since its peak of about 1,600 fighters in 2018, is similar to the one of Hezbollah. The US placed the Zainabiyoun on its financial blacklist in 2019. The Zainabiyoun can also be seen from the lens of fundamental differences between Iran and Pakistan, specifically on issues such as Baluchistan, an insurgency-riddled province where both Islamabad and Tehran often accuse each other of allowing cross-border terrorism.
Afghanistan is the other country where Iran has tapped into the Shia population to bolster its fighting cadre. The Fatemiyoun Brigade was formed in 2014 to help bolster the fighting prowess of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The brigade, similar in construct to its sister agency from Pakistan, consists of Afghan Shia refugees that, over the years, moved into Iran for safety. The Brigade also recruits from the Afghan Shia Hazara community. The Hazaras, less than 10 percent of Afghanistan’s population, are a targeted minority, specifically as of today with the Taliban back in power. As of 2018, more than 2,000 Afghan Shias were reported to have died fighting in Syria with over 20,000 combatants known to be active at a point. However, the Afghan Shias have often complained of not being paid enough by Iran’s preeminent Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for their participation. While some joined the Iranian designs based on the ideology of protecting Shias against Sunnism and Salafism, many others, specifically from Afghanistan, joined in because there was pay involved. Both ideology and poverty made Afghanistan a fertile ground for the recruitment of foreign fighters. Soleimani has previously also visited the graves of Afghan Shias in Syria who died fighting in a show of appreciation but also to highlight that the fighters were not just cannon fodder, but martyrs of the Shia cause.
When the Taliban took back power in Afghanistan in 2021, many saw the Fatemiyoun as an already trained group that could take on the Taliban, secure Iranian interests in the country as and when needed and a pool that could be tapped into in exchange for money if more cadres are needed to fight in the wider Middle East. Prior to the collapse of Kabul, the Fatemiyoun was also seen as a ‘strategic depth’ for Iran by the US, the latter fearing that these combat veterans could be used by Tehran to attack American troops and interests inside Afghanistan. A few months later, along with the state, these security concerns were also inherited by the Taliban. The Fatemiyoun has not shown itself to be a potent homogenous grouping in Afghanistan, but predominantly a stitched-together group of rag-tag fighters looking for a payday.
Despite the limited employability of both the Zainabiyoun and Fatemiyoun in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it does successfully demonstrate Iran’s capability to mobilise Shia ecosystems not only in the immediate Middle East but on its ‘other’ border as well. While no such mobilisation has taken place in India, Shias represent only around 13-15 percent of India’s Muslim population, but this still makes it the second-largest Shia population in the world after Iran. A good concentration of these are in Kashmir, where Shia organisations even took out protests against the US assassination of Soleimani. And perhaps more interestingly, Shias in India are known to electorally favour the in-power right-leaning Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) due to its strong stance against Salafism (which resides within Sunni Islam).
One of the major successes of Hamas in stoking a war against Israel has been that it has diluted the narrative between ‘terrorism’ and ‘resistance’. Iranian leadership openly meeting chiefs of Hezbollah, Hamas, and even factions of Fatah which are against current Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas shows that despite global narratives, Tehran is using the Palestinian cause to mobilise its anti-Israel and anti-American postures openly and publicly. It is taking upon risk of the Gazan war to expand into something more regional, and ideologically, something even more global, as being witnessed from the college dorm rooms of the US to parliamentary debates of Europe.
However, the ‘resistance’ block is also diverse. While Iran-backed actors are looking to be the flagbearers of the same, others, including al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates, also look at this moment as an opportunity to ride the narrative and bolster their own interests and position. For example, the emir of Jamaat-i-Islami in Pakistan, Sirajul Haq, this weekend hyphenated the Kashmir issue with Palestine, calling for Muslims, not leaders or states, to mobilise. “The Ummah is facing this situation due to its spineless rulers. From the soil of Muzaffarabad, I call upon the rulers of Pakistan as well as all other Muslim states to take practical steps [for freedom of Kashmir and Palestine] rather than banking on ritual resolutions of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC),” Haque said at a gathering in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. There are enough groups within this mobilisation that in fact do not serve Iranian interests considering Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi travelled to Saudi Arabia in November after a decade to attend OIC meet on Gaza with his Arab counterparts.
Finally, the current crisis is as much about raw geopolitical and geostrategic calculations as it is about ideology. For Iran, protection and preservation of the current regime is at the top of its strategic aims, as is the same with its regional Arab neighbours and their own monarchic and theocratic political ecosystems. Countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan provide fertile grounds, loosely tied around realities of failed or nearly failed states, for others to fish for their individual interests, as demonstrated by foundations of both the Zainabiyoun and Fatemiyoun brigades. These non-state aberrations are not one-offs. In an increasingly chaotic global order, such unconventional methods of tactical operations will only gain strength despite their perilous nature for all involved.