What happens in Syria
By Imtiaz Gul
The Friday Times, June 20, 2014
Pakistan must not buy a long-term scourge in return for short term cash injections from Saudi Arabia
Pakistan’s turn-around early this year on Syria and its faltering relations with Iran epitomize the ambivalence that has accompanied its foreign policy for decades. Geo-political compulsions aside, our foreign policy has either remained frozen or perpetuated on false, duplicitous premises. The policy on Syria is a reflection of that.
In response to probing questions about the $1.5 billion worth of Saudi Arabian “donation,” Adviser to the Prime Minister on National Security and Foreign Affairs Mr Sartaj Aziz had argued in several interviews that nothing was wrong in getting financial help from a country where “two million Pakistani workers reside and annually remit about $4 billion”. He had also justified the renewed warmth in Saudi Arabia-Pakistan relations, saying the ties had cooled down during the Asif Zardari government and there was a need to revive them.
Sartaj Aziz posed a counter-question to the critics: “Saudi Arabia gave us a lot of help after the nuclear tests in 1998, what did we do for them? Nothing!”
“I am really surprised (to hear this) because they will ask why are Pakistanis critical when Saudia is helping them,” he told a foreign radio.
Critics of the government say the money was given to Islamabad because Pakistan was being used to recruit fighters for the war against the Assad regime in Syria.
Reports from Waziristan suggest that the recruitment began in March 2013, followed by several batches in October and November, when at least 132 Taliban / Mujahideen commanders reportedly transited through Rawalpindi, Lahore and Karachi on their way to Syria. Unconfirmed reports speak of clandestine training camps being run by some proscribed Punjabi and Pashtun groups in Shawal, Janikhel and Mirali. Locals have also reported the arrival of about two dozen foreigners into FATA for training spanning several weeks.
Regardless of the veracity of these reports, Pakistani authorities do face a daunting challenge of convincing locals as well as foreigners that recruitment and training for Syria, if any, has no official sanction.
“If Pakistan supports the rebels in Syria, it will be indirectly supporting Al Qaeda”
Governmental denials notwithstanding, a gradual shift in Pakistan’s stance on the Syrian crisis is clearly discernible – moving from a strictly neutral player to a tacit supporter of the rebels in the war-torn Muslim state.
Back in 2012, Islamabad had sought a peaceful political solution, opposing the military option altogether. However, it took a turn in February 2014 when a Saudi delegation visited Islamabad, openly supporting the formation of a transitional body with executive powers to run the affairs in Syria. In fact New America Foundation’s Foreign Policy magazine had already reported in early November about the Saudi plans to enlist Pakistani manpower for its war in Syria.
What accompanied these reports were speculations that Saudi Arabia wanted Pakistan to supply arms for the Syrian rebels. Although the government gave some clarifications, yet its reluctance in transparently explaining what the Saudi Arabian $1.5 billion were for, announced after the visits of successive Saudi delegations to Islamabad between November 2013 and February 2014, is causing concerns.
This policy shift understandably discomforted Shia Pakistanis, who fear that the tilt towards the Wahabite Royal Kingdom might spell more troubles for them in case of renewed sectarian violence targeting Shia Muslims in the country.
Even a senior foreign ministry official recently expressed his frustration over the way the government had dealt with the issue. “It’s a Syrian issue,” he said. “We are against any foreign adventures (in Syria) and the crisis in Syria should be resolved politically.”
The army’s general headquarters (GHQ) has its own reservations. Already stretched thin because of the so many wars it is fighting from the north to the south and south west, the army reportedly declined to relieve officers for Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
The civilian government’s apparent agreement to get involved – and Sartaj Aziz’s interview with foreign media does point to that – has ostensibly not only politically polarized Pakistan but also once again strained relations with Iran, which supports the Syrian regime, presumably because of sectarian and geo-political factors. Beyond doubt, the Iranian disagreement or displeasure would also deny Islamabad possible Iranian support on the Afghan issue where Iran may not support even legitimate Pakistani concerns in the coming months and years.
Most political parties are opposed to this paradigm shift and advise staying neutral. They have taken an unambiguous position on the Syrian crisis as they fear that support to the Saudi cause could plunge the country into jihadism.
The MQM, for instance, wants the country to remain neutral in its own interest instead of taking sides with Saudi Arabia. “If Pakistan supports rebels in Syria, then it would be like indirectly supporting Al Qaeda,” MQM Senator Syed Tahir Hussain Mashhadi says.
ANP Senator Haji Adeel says it appears Pakistan hasn’t learned from the past. “At the end of day, Pakistan will be the loser. It has suffered the consequences of proxy wars among Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. Whatever we’re facing today is the product of what we did there (in Afghanistan)… let’s stop doing this,” he said.
PPP’s Mian Raza Rabbani says a pro-Saudi shift in the policy on Syria would amount to playing with fire. “It’s important for Islamabad to keep equal terms with all Muslim countries otherwise it’s going to be harmful for Pakistan.”
While the government assured the Senate that it would not abandon its neutrality on Syria, Rabbani is skeptical. “We have got to learn from our past experiences. That (change in policy) could trigger internal security concerns,” the PPP Senator said.
Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Syed Khurshid Shah says he does not even know what the government’s position on Syria is – a fact even more lamentable because he occupies an extremely important position, representing several other parties – but he says Pakistan should be neutral.
A number of conclusions can be drawn from the above.
Firstly, leading parliamentarians remain shockingly ignorant on those crucial policy issues which amount to existential challenges for the country.
Secondly, the government continues to remain ambivalent on key policy decisions and has apparently kept all mainstream parties at a distance on these issues.
Thirdly, while most Pakistanis including the military establishment and the ruling Muslim League always blame the CIA and the American administrations for the “jihadization of Pakistan”, the West is certainly not part of what is happening right now. Who is responsible for the renewed recruitment of jihadists from Pakistan for Syria?
Lastly, Pakistan will have to stop bargaining its geo-strategic location for dollars, or serving as a conduit and contractor for recruiting mercenaries required for others’ wars in return for financial incentives. These hand-outs bring with them seeds of sectarian militarism which not only fan religious divisions but fuel radicalization of minds – the long-term scourge that successive governments buy in return for short term cash injections.
Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies