What the Middle East doesn’t need right now is a further generalization of the sectarian war. But that is exactly what an increasingly desperate Assad is doing:
Iran is offering thousands of dollars to Shia mercenaries from Afghanistan and Pakistan to join the fight to keep President Assad of Syria in power.
According to Shia community leaders in Kabul, the recruitment drive is co-ordinated by the Iranian embassy in the Afghan capital. It provides visas to “hundreds” of Shia men each month willing to fight in Syria. Online Urdu- language recruitment is also taking place in Pakistan, with fighters offered $3,000 each to join up.
Some analysts believe that as many as 5,000 Afghans and Pakistanis are now fighting for the Assad regime, bolstering government troops whose morale has been battered by a series of reverses since the start of the year. They have lost territory, in the process, to increasingly well-organised rebel units backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Iran is the main provider of arms, fighters and finance to the Assad regime.
This increase in mercenary support comes at a time when the Assad regime is thought to control only 20–30% Syria’s territory, and is considering a withdrawal from positions that are not vital to its survival.
Yet despite the worsening fortunes of Tehran’s longtime ally, Iran’s President Rouhani defiantly proclaimed today that “The Iranian nation and government will remain at the side of the Syrian nation and government until the end of the road.” In another show of support, Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani recently made a visit to Syria’s Latakia region, the heartland of the Assad regime. Soleimani subsequently reaffirmed Iran’s continuing commitment to the Syrian regime, announcing that “The world will be surprised by what we and the Syrian military leadership are preparing for the coming days.”
Chilling words today—and but a taste of what is likely to happen as Tehran finds extra revenue sloshing around its coffers if and when international sanctions are eased.