The operation Marg Bar Sarmachar is specifically used with reference to Pakistan’s strike on Iran on 18 January 2024, but is also used here to referr more generally to Iran’s [seeminglly un-named] missile strikes a few days earlier, which seemed to have the same theme. The operation codename Marg Bar Sarmachar loosely translates to ‘death to guerrillas’. Marg Bar is a Persian phrase which means death to — historically used in the anti-American slogan “Marg bar Amrika” during Irans 1979 Islamic Revolution. In the Baloch language, “sarmachar” translates to guerrilla. The sarmachars or insurgents referred to here are militants belonging to the separatist groups Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF). The phrase is kindred to Smersh (a blend of Russian words Smert’ Shpionam which translates into English as death to spies).
By mid-January 2024 the Israeli war with the HAMAS was threatening to emerge as a regional confrontation. Initially, since the 07 October 2023 attack by the HAMAS on Israel, the war was a war of proxies – the HAMAS, Hizballah, Islamic Resistance in Iraq, and the Houthis were clearly Iranian proxies, while Iran and some others counted Israel [the Lesser Satan] as a proxy of America [the Great Satan]. This threshold was initially breached by the Islamic Resistance in Iraq attacks on American facilities, notably in Iraq. The “proxies only” threshold was further eroded by Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, to include American vessels.
And this rung on the escalation ladder was passed by the US and UK attacks on Houthi targets in Yemen. On 12 January 2024 American and British warplanes targeted with 73 missiles in five regions of Yemen, including the capital Sana’a, and the provinces of Hudaydah, Taizz, Hajjah, and Saada, killing at least five people and wounding six others. Follow-up strikes were a daily occurrence.
Iran firmly embraced the next rung on the escalation ladder on 16 January 2024 when elements of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC], stationed in Iran itself, attacked targets in Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan. While Syria and Iraq are Iranian clients, and offered only verbal complaints, Pakistan is another matter. On 18 January 2024 Pakistan retaliated by attacking targets in Iran.
It was not initially clear if either Iran or Pakistan wanted to engage in full-blown hostilities over separatist groups that they both regard as an enemy. Both sides issued statements that hinted at a desire not to see things escalate. Pakistans foreign ministry called Iran a brotherly country and emphasized the need to find joint solutions. This echoed the Iranian foreign minister, who called Pakistan a friendly country earlier this week and said their strikes were proportionate and only aimed at militants.
On 16 January 2024 Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] conducted strikes on Pakistans Balochistan province, killing two children and wounding several others, according to Pakistani authorities. The IRGC also launched ballistic missiles targeting an alleged Mossad base in Erbil, Iraq, and anti-Iran terror groups in Syria. Iran said this was in retaliation to Israeli attacks that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders. It also claimed that the targets in Syria were involved in the recent dual bombings in the city of Kerman during a memorial for the slain Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani that left scores dead and wounded. The international terror group ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack on the Soleimani memorial.
The Baloch militants in Pakistan operating against the interests of Iran are members of three different groups: Jundullah, Jaish-ul Adl, and Harakat Ansar Iran. Their stated goals include the independence of Sistan and Baluchistan. Jaish-ul Adl, which means “Army of Justice, attacked a police station in Rask on December 15, 2023, killing 11 police officers. Iran called the January 16 attack on the Jaish al-Adl groups headquarters in Pakistan another decisive step taken by Iran in response to the aggression against the security of our country.
Pakistan Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani firmly underscored that the attack conducted by Iran inside Pakistani territory, on January 16, 2024, was not only a serious breach of Pakistans sovereignty but was also an egregious violation of international law and the spirit of bilateral relations between Pakistan and Iran.
Iranian security forces had previously launched numerous rocket attacks at the Pakistani towns of Panjgur and Mashkil in Balochistan over the years. Iranian border forces, in some instances, targeted civilians with mortars and direct gunfire in districts like Kech, Panjgur, Musakhel, and Washuk. Pakistani authorities confirmed multiple instances of Iranian border violations, with reports of rockets being fired around 11 to 12 times a month. Balochistan Chief Minister Dr Abdul Malik Baloch expressed his frustration over these cross-border attacks and called on the Pakistan government to address the issue. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said his country only targeted Iranian terrorists on Pakistan soil and that none of the nationals of the friendly country of Pakistan were targeted by missiles and drones of Iran.
Irans proxies had launched attacks on Israeli forces and its allies. Houthi rebels have launched a series of attacks on commercial ships and Western military vessels in the Red Sea, a major artery for international trade. And Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria have launched dozens of attacks aimed at US military positions in those countries. Following the Israeli offensive in Gaza, the militant group Hezbollah has engaged in daily confrontations with Israeli forces on the Lebanon-Israel border. On January 17, Israels military chief said the likelihood of war on the countrys northern border was now much higher and Israel was increasing its readiness for fighting in Lebanon.
Pakistan stated 18 January 2024 that it “undertook a series of highly coordinated and specifically targeted precision military strikes against terrorist hideouts in Siestan-o-Baluchistan province of Iran. A number of terrorists were killed during the Intelligence-based operation codenamed *Marg Bar Sarmachar’*. Over the last several years, in our engagements with Iran, Pakistan has consistently shared its serious concerns about the safe havens and sanctuaries enjoyed by Pakistani origin terrorists calling themselves *Sarmachars* on the ungoverned spaces inside Iran. Pakistan also shared multiple dossiers with concrete evidence of the presence and activities of these terrorists.
“However, because of lack of action on our serious concerns, these so-called Sarmachars continued to spill the blood of innocent Pakistanis with impunity. This mornings action was taken in light of credible intelligence of impending large scale terrorist activities by these so called Sarmachars. This action is a manifestation of Pakistans unflinching resolve to protect and defend its national security against all threats. The successful execution of this highly complex operation is also a testimony to the professionalism of the Pakistan Armed Forces. Pakistan will continue to take all necessary steps to preserve the safety and security of its people which is sacrosanct, inviolable and sacred.
“Pakistan fully respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The sole objective of todays act was in pursuit of Pakistans own security and national interest which is paramount and cannot be compromised. As a responsible member of the international community, Pakistan upholds the principles and purposes of the UN Charter including territorial integrity and sovereignty of member states. Guided by these principles, and in exercise of our legitimate rights within international law, Pakistan will never allow its sovereignty and territorial integrity to be challenged, under any pretext or circumstances.
“Iran is a brotherly country and the people of Pakistan have great respect and affection for the Iranian people. We have always emphasized dialogue and cooperation in confronting common challenges including the menace of terrorism and will continue to endevaour to find joint solutions.”
The BLA and BLF are ethno-nationalist militant organisations that operate from within “ungoverned” parts of Iran against the interests of Pakistan. With a majority of their members being drawn from the Marri and Bugti tribes of the Balochistan plateau, the group has been spearheading insurgency against Pakistan since the 2000s, and has been behind several violent attacks in the country.
The attacks this week mean that both countries have now taken up attacking militants on each others soil along its 900-kilometer border. The Baloch people are the indigenous inhabitants of the land where three countries–Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran–meet. The Baloch people have historically resisted being ruled by both Islamabad and Tehran, with insurgencies bubbling across the porous border for decades.
The Sistan and Baluchistan province of Iran is characterised by its significant poverty and deprivation. In recent years, it has faced severe challenges such as droughts and extreme weather conditions. This province exhibits Iran’s lowest statistics in key areas, including life expectancy, adult literacy, primary school enrollment, access to clean water and sanitation, and infant mortality. But the region is also rich in natural resources and Baloch separatists complain that their people, some of the regions poorest, have benefited little from its resources.
The Baloch insurgency in Pakistan has implications for stability across South Asia. Aside from the historical grievances of political and economic subjugation, the construction of the Gwadar mega port, expanded natural gas exploration, the war in Afghanistan, and the militarys harsh response to nationalist demands have fueled the insurgency.
Irans strikes on Pakistan sparked a diplomatic spat, with the latter recalling its ambassador and suspending all high-level visits from its neighbour. After Pakistans strikes, Iran demanded an immediate explanation from its neighbour. Nearby nations have weighed in, with India saying it has zero tolerance towards terrorism, and that the attack was a matter between Iran and Pakistan. China urged both nations to exercise restraint and avoid escalating tensions further. US State Department spokesperson Matt Miller said Washington DC was working to prevent the Middle East from erupting into full-scale conflict.
Iran condemned Pakistans attack on the southeastern Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchestan and summoned the Pakistani chargé d’affaires in protest against the incident. The Pakistani diplomat was summoned to the ministry on Thursday in the absence of the country’s ambassador to Tehran for an explanation regarding several explosions in different areas around the city of Saravan in Sistan and Baluchestan province, close to the border with Pakistan earlier in the day. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani later condemned the attack and confirmed that the Pakistani chargé d’affaires had been summoned by the ministry to convey Tehrans protest to Islamabad and provide an explanation about the attack.
Iran’s Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, issued a strong warning on 17 January 2024, threatening a robust response to any attack on Iran’s national security. He affirmed that Iran maintains very positive relations with both Iraq and Pakistan. On the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Amir-Abdollahian also mentioned that Iran had shared intelligence with Iraq regarding Mossad’s espionage activities in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. He emphasized that “Jaish ul-Adl, a terrorist group linked to Israel, was targeted,” pointing out that none of the nationals of the friendly and brotherly country of Pakistan were targeted by Iranian missiles and drones.
Iran addressed the friendly and brotherly government of Pakistan after a dispute over Islamabads drone attack on an Iranian village near their border, calling on the neighboring state to prevent the establishment of “terrorist bases” on its soil. In a statement issued on 18 January 2023, Irans Foreign Ministry said it condemns the unbalanced and unacceptable action of Pakistan in the drone attack on non-Iranian citizens in a village on the border wall of the two countries.
Nine people, including four children, were killed after Islamabad admitted attacking a village in Saravan in Irans southeastern Sistan and Baluchestan province, characterizing it a response to Tehrans operation against terrorist bases inside Pakistan. While the Islamic Republic adheres to the policy of good neighborliness and brotherhood between the two nations and the two governments of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Pakistan and does not allow the enemies to darken the good and fraternal relations between the two countries, it considers the security of the people and the territorial integrity of the country as its red line, the statement said.
And it strongly expects the friendly and brotherly government of Pakistan to adhere to its commitments in preventing the establishment of bases and armed terrorist groups on Pakistan’s soil, it added.
Iran said on 16 January 2024 it had hit bases of Jaish al-Adl inside Pakistan to prevent another attack after 11 Iranian policemen were killed by the terrorist group in its hit-and-run raid on a police station in the city of Rask in Deember 2023. In this incident, the ministry said, the border outpost of the IRGC upon seeing the preparation of a terrorist group to leave for the territory of the Islamic Republic of Iran to carry out another terrorist operation similar to the criminal act in Rask, took preventive action against the terrorist group in its barracks and headquarters in the heights of the region and kilometers away from residential areas.
The ministry said This procedure is part of the inherent duties of the border forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran to deal with any imminent terrorist threat against the people and citizens of the country. It concluded The account of the government of Pakistan as a friend and brother is separate from armed terrorists and the Islamic Republic of Iran always adheres to its neighborly policy and does not allow its enemies and terrorist allies to strain these relations, especially when the genocide and crimes of the Zionist regime are the first issue of the Islamic world.
Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told his Pakistani counterpart that Iranian attacks on terrorists based in Pakistan’s territory were meant to remove security threats to both nations, reiterating Iran’s respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its eastern neighbor. In a phone call with Jalil Abbas Jilani on Wednesday, Amir-Abdollahian said that the so-called Jaish al-Adl terrorist group that was targeted in Iranian missile and drone attacks a day earlier has been working against the security of both Iran and Pakistan for the past years.
He reiterated the fact that no Pakistani national had been affected by the attacks which he said had solely targeted terrorists of Iranian origin operating against the Islamic Republic’s security from the Pakistani territory. Irans security has repeatedly been threatened by this Iranian terrorist grouplet from the Pakistani soil and the grouplet had repeatedly claimed responsibility for terrorist moves on the Iranian soil, said the top Iranian diplomat.
The minister also touched on Irans attack into Iraqs Kurdistan region, saying they were retaliation for recent anti-Iran attacks staged by Israels Mossad. The Iranian minister said Tehran has shared intelligence with Iraq about Mossad activities in Iraqs Kurdistan, adding that Israel is an enemy of both Iraq and Iran. He cited a 2023 security pact between Iran and Iraq, saying it obliges Iraqi officials not to allow Irans security to be threatened from their soil. The top Iranian diplomat said Iran respected the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Pakistan and Iraq but would strongly react to any attack on its national security.
Pakistani President Arif Alvi said that Pakistan and Iran were brotherly countries and should resolve issues through dialogue and mutual consultation. In a statement, Alvi added that terrorism was a common challenge that should be eliminated through global efforts. He said that Pakistan fully respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states and expects the same from other nations. The president, however, emphasized that Islamabad would not compromise its national security and territorial integrity and would take all necessary measures to defend its soil.
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