In an August 18 interview with Tehran-based Mashreg News, an agency affiliated with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Brig. Gen. Mohammed Ali Falaki announced the formation of the Shia Liberation Army (SLA) under the command of elite Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani.
The formation of the SLA will further inflame sectarian tension and could jeopardise regional security, as it aims to strip Shia of their national identities and strain their relations with members of other sects that together make up the social fabric of society, clerics and observers from across the region tell Al-Mashareq.
Falaki, a retired IRGC commander who was deployed to Syria with the Afghan Fatemiyoun Division, said the new force is made up of Iranians and foreign nationals, particularly Afghans.
IRGC-backed forces have a presence in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, he said, describing these forces as "a unified army".
Speaking to Mashreg News, Falaki admitted that Afghan, Pakistani, Iraqi and Syrian groups were fighting under the command of the IRGC in Syria under various names.
This refutes previous Syrian and Iranian statements denying that Pakistani and Afghan groups are fighting in Syria.
IRGC's divisive tactics
The formation of the SLA "will have a negative impact on the region as well as the world and increase sectarian tensions", particularly in countries in which it manages to create a foothold, said Fathi al-Sayed, a researcher specialising in Iranian affairs at the Middle East Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies.
The IRGC for years has been "sending its arms into the Arab region and setting up many groups around the world under multiple names, mostly taking a religious-sectarian cover [... with the aim] to inflame sectarian strife", he said.
The announcement of the SLA will be met with serious negative reaction in the region, al-Sayed predicted.
The divisive tactics that the IRGC is employing can only be handled by raising awareness among young people of all sects and religions and "exposing the methods the IRGC is employing in penetrating the region and attracting all social groups", he said.
"The split the IRGC aims for is achieved by provoking sectarian strife and stoking religious sentiment, in addition to arming and financing [militia groups], exploiting poor economic conditions and the sense of social injustice, and constant incitement against existing governments," al-Sayed added.
Clerics reject sectarian military formations
"We reject all partisan and military formations that are outside the legal framework of the state and its security and military institutions, especially those that interfere in the affairs of other countries," said Sheikh al-Sayed Ali Amin, a Lebanese Shia cleric.
"We also reject all the confessional and sectarian names for those formations because they imbue the ongoing conflicts with a sectarian character that inflames animosities between the people of the same nation, and benefit only the enemies of the nation who aspire to dismantle and control it," he said.
Iran's announcement of the formation of the new force is yet another attempt to keep the sectarian conflict inflamed, said Sheikh Hashem Almjehd, a Shia cleric from Saudi Arabia's eastern al-Ahsa region.
"The announcement will heighten the tension that already exists and could unfortunately escalate it to the point at which the entire region explodes," he told Al-Mashareq.
He accused the Iranian regime of starting "fires outside its borders in order to continue to control the sectarian arms in the region", noting the announcement of the SLA will give extremist groups leverage in recruiting Sunni youth.
It also will make it more difficult for scholars to advocate for the voice of reason, he said.
Shia scholars are fully aware of the ambitions of the Iranian regime, and will work to stem the attempted recruitment of Shia youth, he added, though they will probably face pressure from IRGC-affiliated cells.