The Treasury Department imposed terrorism and human rights sanctions today on two militias fighting in Syria under Iran’s direction. The Fatemiyoun Division and Zeynabioun Brigade both play leading roles in the Iranian-led force fighting on behalf of Bashar al-Assad, enabling him to remain in power and continue waging a war that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
The Fatemiyoun consists of Afghan Shiites, recruited mainly from the poor Afghan migrant community in Iran, which numbers roughly three million. Iranian sources claim that there are 12,000 or more fighters in the division, although this is likely an exaggeration. The scholar Ali Alfoneh has documented the death of more than 900 Afghan Shiites in Syria, based on public information about their funerals. In response to heavy casualties, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met publicly with the families of fallen fighters to express his gratitude and offer condolences.
The Treasury Department noted that the Fatemiyoun’s ranks include child soldiers as young as 14. In October 2017, non-governmental organizations published evidence of the recruitment of child soldiers by the Quds Force of Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC-QF), itself sanctioned for terrorism since 2007.
The Zeynabioun Brigade consists of Pakistani Shiites, who initially fought with the Fatemiyoun until they had sufficient personnel for their own unit. Older estimates suggest the Zeynabioun has 1,000 fighters or less, although Iranian sources claim as much as 5,000. Alfoneh has documented 158 Pakistani fatalities in Syria. Treasury’s announcement of sanctions said that the Zeynabioun recruits mainly “from among undocumented and impoverished Pakistani Shiite immigrants living in Iran.” Press reports indicate the brigade also recruits in Pakistan itself.
Iran has long relied on foreign Shiite forces, such as Lebanese Hezbollah, to carry out its regional agenda. However, the growing weakness of the Assad regime, especially since 2013, led Iran to rely as never before on foreign militias under the effective command and control of the IRGC-QF. While Syria has remained the focal point of such operations, Tehran has also sent smaller Fatemiyoun units to fight in Yemen. Both the Fatemiyoun and Zeynabioun have released statements indicating their readiness to fight anywhere under Iranian command.
In this regard, the newer militias are following the precedent set by Hezbollah, which operates across the Middle East and farther afield. Iran now has a multinational expeditionary force, or a Shiite foreign legion, capable of prosecuting foreign wars while minimizing the loss of Iranian lives. Like Hezbollah, these militias often identify the destruction of Israel as their ultimate objective.
If the Trump administration plans to hold accountable all forces that fight on Tehran’s behalf, then numerous additional designations should follow. Syrian-based forces that fit this profile include the Imam al-Rida Forces, the Sayyida Ruqqaya Brigade, the Local Defense Forces, and National Defense Forces. Iraqi-based Shiite militias under the control of the IRGC-QF include Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, and the Imam Ali Brigades. The only Iraqi Shiite militia already under sanctions is Kataib Hezbollah, owing to its prominent role in the pre-2011 insurgency.
Bipartisan legislation currently before the House would require the president to impose sanctions on Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba. Similar legislation passed the chamber last year as part of the annual defense authorization act, yet the conference committee struck the language. Since Iranian-backed militias remain potent, Congress and the executive branch should persist with efforts to address this threat.
David Adesnik is director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP) and its Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Follow David on Twitter @adesnik. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD, @FDD_CEFP, and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.