Apart from global and regional divisions, Pakistan has its own domestic concerns vis-à-vis the sectarian nature of the conflict in Syria
A country’s foreign policy or foreign relations’ policy consists of self-interest strategies adopted by the state to safeguard its national interests and to achieve goals within its international relations milieu. But due to the dependency syndrome, Pakistan has to buckle under pressure from so-called friends and allies to the detriment of its national interest. Indeed, the Syrian crisis has become a predicament for Pakistan, forcing it to adhere to the policies of non-interference and non-intervention as a means of adopting a ‘neutral’ stance, yet subscribing to intervention in the name of establishing a transitional government. In 2014, Pakistan sided with Iran, China and Russia in opposing foreign intervention in Syria on the principle that the international community must respect the sovereignty of Syrian borders and help negotiate a peaceful outcome instead of starting another war in the Middle East.
Once again, Pakistan’s foreign office said the other day that Pakistan would continue to adhere to its policy of respecting war-ravaged Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. “Pakistan has a principled position on the situation in Syria based on respect for territorial integrity and the sovereignty of Syria,” Foreign Office Spokesman Nafees Zakaria said at a briefing on Thursday. Similar statements had been issued by Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry in October and December 2015. However, Pakistan consented to become a partner in the Saudi-led alliance or coalition. The reiteration of Pakistan’s policy on Syria came as Saudi Arabia and Turkey considered plans for a ground incursion into Syria on the pretext of fighting the militant Islamic State (IS) group. Both Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been supporting Syrian rebels and have pushed for regime change in the country, which is the position taken by the US and the west.
They made their plans for ground intervention public after the rebels started losing ground to government forces around Aleppo. Soon after the alliance was announced by Riyadh, Pakistan confirmed its participation but is still unaware about the operational details. In fact, Pakistan faces a dilemma: it will not like to annoy Saudi Arabia or Iran. Therefore, there are ambiguities galore in the statements made by Pakistani functionaries. Answering a question, the adviser on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, told the House “Pakistan is still awaiting further details and technical consultations regarding the 34-state Islamic military coalition to combat terrorism.” Had Pakistan refused joining the 34-country Saudi-led alliance, or had not come up to the expectations of Saudi Arabia, the latter would have been unhappy. On the other hand, if it went along the Saudi way, relations with Iran would have become sour.
There was internal pressure from all political parties that Pakistan should not take sides and should play a mediator’s role. Thus, Pakistan decided to play the role to help defuse the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Despite its close relations with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan has been treading carefully. Pakistan consented to join the Saudi-led alliance against IS but, according to the adviser to the Prime Minister (PM) on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan would not send ground troops to Saudi Arabia or any other country after having joined the 34-state Islamic military alliance led by Saudi Arabia. However, Pakistan is alive to the situation vis-à-vis an understanding between Russia, China and Iran to find a solution to the Syrian conflict. In October 2015, there was some progress in UN-backed peace talks in which it was agreed that within two weeks focus would be placed on working out plans for a smooth transition.
However, the regime change of President Bashar al-Assad did not figure in the talks, which meant that he would remain in power in the foreseeable future. Earlier, the US had insisted Assad must quit as part of any political deal but later changed its stance; he might be allowed to stay during a transition in power. Iranian and Russian officials took the position that only the Syrian people could decide Assad’s future. The agreement, reached after seven hours of discussions, was meant to advance talks on a new constitution and elections, a process now backed for the first time by regional and international powers, including Russia, the US, Iran and Saudi Arabia. After the meeting, Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian of Iran had tweeted after the meeting that “as a result of our efforts, they agreed not to include a timetable for the departure of Assad in the final statement”.
The core of Pakistan’s predicament with regards to Syria can be explained by looking at some of the domestic socio-political compulsions. In this regard, the fact cannot be ignored that apart from global and regional divisions, Pakistan has its own domestic concerns vis-à-vis the sectarian nature of the conflict in Syria. The majority of Pakistan’s population is Sunni yet the Shia minority enjoys equal status in all walks of life. This attitude of the national culture also governs Pakistan’s relations with other Muslim countries irrespective of their sectarian complexion. As such, aligning with Saudi Arabia can potentially alienate Pakistan’s sizable Shia population, which sometimes looks to Iran as a protector. But this issue seems to lose its significance in the face of more pressing geo-economic factors. Therefore, Pakistan is obliged to take a balanced diplomatic stance so as to satisfy both sides on the conflict.
On Friday, the UN Security Council (UNSC) discussed a draft resolution broached by Russia over concerns about the deteriorating Syrian-Turkish border situation and Turkey’s calls to send ground forces into Syria. The draft resolution urges countries to fight extremist groups “in coordination with the governments of the affected states”. The deputy permanent representative of Russia to the UN, Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov, said, “The main elements of the draft resolution demand all parties to refrain from interfering in Syria, to fully respect its sovereignty and independence, and abandon plans for ground operations, which would undermine all fundamental decisions of Resolution 2254.” In other words, the people of Syria have the right to decide about their future without foreign intervention. However, the same principle should be applicable to the Yemen crisis, as the people of Yemen have the same right.
The writer is a freelance columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org