Pakistan Pressured to Go out on a Limb on Syria?
By Karamatullah K. Ghori
Nothing can be put past the leaders of Pakistan when it comes to obliging their foreign mentors and patrons.
There was, for one, our very First Bonaparte, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, who didn’t bat an eye-lid before handing over Badaber , outside Peshawar, to his American ‘Friends, not Masters,’ as per his claim, and the ‘friends’ quickly converted it into an airbase to spy on the then Soviet Union. That was whence the American spy-pilot, Garry Power, took off in his U-2 aircraft, in May 1960, and was shot down by the Russians over their soil. That one incident of voluntarily going out on a limb for ‘friends-that-never-were-in-need’ incurred us the abiding wrath and hostility of the Russians. It may not be out of place to note that the First PM of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan, had firmly declined to be browbeaten by this outrageous demand from the same ‘friends’ on his watch.
Need anyone be reminded of our last (hopefully the very-last) Bonaparte, the upstart commando, General Pervez Musharraf, and his shameful pawning of Pakistan to his American mentors-and-minders?
Ayub may’ve given only one air base to the distant ‘friend’ but Musharraf opened up the country, from one end to the other, to his pay-masters. And the commando didn’t stop there; for good measure, and to earn more brownie points, he also threw in as a bonus a blank check to pummel the hapless Pakistanis in the north with dreaded drones.
Of course, the Bonapartes alone shouldn’t be picked on for being susceptible to bullying or blandishments. Our civilian ‘heroes’ aren’t immune, either, to this dreadful malaise of buckling under pressure from heir puppeteers.
Nawaz Sharif, who suffered humiliation and exile under Musharraf, isn’t a Bonaparte but seems to have been smitten by the same bug that incapacitated his tormentor-Bonaparte. His forced banishment to Saudi Arabia threw him into the lap of the Saudis like a ripened fruit falling off a tree. He prospered enormously in that exile, thanks to his Saudi patrons who took fancy to him and, in the process, also acquired a hefty leverage over him.
It seems that the Saudis are now well poised to cash in their investment in Nawaz Sharif. So they’re leaning on him to become their arms supplier to the murderers fighting a bloody war against Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.
The world has known it for quite some time that the Salafi hordes, ignited by their congenital hatred of the Alawi Bashr regime in Syria, have been generously bank-rolled by the Saudis royals, who have their own axe to grind with Assad. Initially Saudi Arabia’s Western allies, led by the US, were four-square behind the Saudi-inspired insurgency to topple Assad. The strategy was supposed to serve a dual target: get rid of the pesky Baathist regime in Syria and, as a bonus to it, cripple the Iranian influence in that part of the Levant. The strategy had silent blessings of Israel, too, which has been anxious for a long time to give a bloody nose to Iran because of its mentoring of Hizbollah in Lebanon.
However, the blood-thirsty Salafi hordes, resembling the 21 st century version of the vandals and the Mongols, have come up with their own side-agenda. They wouldn’t just stop at the gates of a vanquished Damascus to oblige their pay-masters but carry on to conquer Iraq, too. Their agenda is larger than their mentors’: they are seeking to establish an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to become a launching pad for their avowed world-wide jihad for a world transformed in their skewed perception of an Islam perpetually at war.
The Salafi agenda and blue-print of ISIS—with Al Qaeda imprints festooned on it-- sends shudders down the western spines, if not yet down the spines of the deep-pocketed Qatar and Saudi Arabia catering to their every whim in the bloody confrontation with the Damascus regime.
But the Salafi agenda understandably puts a damper on any expectations of their pay-masters that the western countries would agree to give them the kind of weapons that would match what the Assad regime has, with the Russians readily replenishing its armoury. The Salafis have no weapons to match, for instance, the fire-power of the Syrian air force and the rockets fired by its jets. That must make the pay-masters very unhappy to see their protégés stifled and handicapped by the lack of matching arsenal.
That’s where our businessman-PM Nawaz Sharif and the years-old Saudi investment in him come into play. The Saudis expect Pakistan to give their Salafi hordes what they currently lack, vis-à-vis the Assad regime’s fire-power. They know the Pakistanis have what they want.
Pakistan has developed its own version of the American, shoulder-fired, Stinger missile. The Pakistani manufacture is actually the Chinese version of Stinger, christened as Anza, which is said to be as effective as Stinger ever was. The Saudis know what havoc the Stinger missile had played on the Soviet gunships and blasted them from the skies over their-occupied Afghanistan. It proved to be the decisive weapon that bolstered the Afghan resistance immensely and broke the back of the Russians, triggering an ignominious retreat from Afghanistan.
The Saudis may be excused if they’re salivating over what magical transformation the Pakistani missiles—anti-aircraft and anti-tank—could bring to the fortunes of their Salafi wards on the battle-field Syria, where they’re currently stymied in a deadlock.
Nawaz Sharif couldn’t be confronted with a more unnerving challenge than this, with his Saudi mentors breathing down his neck. Just look at the grand procession of Saudi royals to Pakistan. Foreign Minister Prince Saud-Al Faisal came in January, followed in February by Crown Prince Salman bin Abdel Aziz, who also happens to be Defence Minister. In between, the new Chief of Army, General Raheel Sharif, was also summoned to Riyadh to be closeted with more royals.
Poor Nawaz Sharif must be feeling the weight of the Saudis over him, especially unnerving when he’s caught at an awkward tangent in the stalled peace dialogue with the Taliban, no different from the Salafis he’s being bamboozled to arm.
Nawaz is a disciple of the Ziaul Haq School when it comes to fidelity to the Saudi royals. But Ziaul Haq’s infatuation with the Saudis was more of a sentimental kind, akin to that of any other middle-class and devoutly religious Pakistani. Nawaz, in contrast, has a more mundane and interest-oriented relationship with them. He isn’t only deeply obligated to them—they were the ones who bailed him out of Musharraf’s claws and sheltered him for long years under their wings. During his exile in the Kingdom, Nawaz & family cultivated deep business interests with them, too. He’d loathe any prospect of incurring their wrath and souring his deeply-entrenched family relations with the Saudi royals.
Also in the works is the issue of moral gumption and courage to say ‘no’ to any outrageous demand from our Saudi friends. Zia had that fibre in him. He was cut from a sturdier cloth and could say to them, sorry, but this wouldn’t wash. He stood up to them and said, no way, when, at the peak of the wasteful and bloody eight-year war between Iraq and Iran he wouldn’t agree to the Pakistani brigade—stationed in Saudia for the safety of its royals following the siege of Kaaba by religious fanatics in 1979—used as mercenaries to bail the then Saudi protégé, Saddam Hussein, out of a tight corner. He was firm that Pakistan wouldn’t countenance any idea of fighting our next-door neighbour, Iran.
Nawaz is up against a rehash of that demand. Arming the Salafi zealots and jihadis , ostensibly against Syria, has a dual-use cachet on it. It’s as much aimed at Iran. But Nawaz is made of softer material and may have a hard time in not obliging his Saudi mentors—if he ever musters enough courage to stand up to them.
So there we are up against a nasty quirk of fate. We’ve our hands full with our own death merchants, the Pakistani Taliban. But our Saudi friends and ‘brothers’ don’t mind piling on our agony and forcing us to walk the plank.
The Foreign Office in Islamabad may go on vehemently denying any side-taking in the Syrian imbroglio. Spokeswoman, Tasneem Aslam, may insist with all her charms on camera that Pakistan has no sense to burn its fingers in the fires of Syria. But the tune is changing, and pundits can sense it.
Up until recently, Pakistan’s staple by-line on Syria said, “Political differences should be resolved through an inclusive dialogue.” But the joint-declaration issued from Islamabad, upon the conclusion of Prince Salman bin Abdel Aziz’visit, on February 19, called for the “formation of a transitional governing body” in Syria. That’s exactly what the badly-divided Syrian Opposition in exile has been insisting on—words clearly put in their mouth by the Saudis and Qataris under-writing their revolt against the Syrian regime. It’s demand for regime-change, by another name. Geneva-2 broke down because of it, because the Syrian Opposition—tutored by their pay-masters—see no role in a transitional government for Assad or anyone of his Baathist regime.
Pakistan may also take the high moral ground on the issue of its arms for the Syrian rebels and Salafi terrorists. But the posture has holes in it. Tasneem Aslam’s press briefing on the issue, on February 27 in Islamabad, was a classic example of bureaucratic non-speak. It said, “The policy guidelines for the sale of arms that we have are in line with the adherence to the purposes and principles of the UN charter.” Make any sense this garbled lingo? But give full marks to Aslam for her wrenching obfuscation. It was typical of the well-bred mandarins of the Foreign Office, who wouldn’t be diplomats if they didn’t master the art of confusing.
In the end, however, it will all come down to Nawaz Sharif’s backbone, if he has one. The Saudis, playing a highly dangerous and inflammable role in the Syrian civil war, have lately been tying themselves into so many knots on their sponsorship of a violently berserk cabal that would like to ink the Arab world in their own script. Let them dig themselves as deep as they fancy into a hole. Why should we get our hands all messed up in pulling them out of it. There’s no earthly reason for Pakistan to go out on a limb to pull the Saudi chestnut out of the fire in Syria, or Iraq, for that matter.
Another caveat for Nawaz should be in order. The Russians have their tail up on the Saudi plan. In an official statement from Moscow, issued on February 25, the Russian government has warned Saudi Arabia to desist from walking down the path of arming the fanatics fighting Damascus. Pakistani weapons for the Salafis could put Islamabad in the cross-hairs of Moscow. It would be reminiscent of the fallout, 54 years ago, from the U-2 incident. Nawaz owes it to his nation to not let history repeat itself in yet another farce. - K_K_ghori@yahoo.com
(The author is a former ambassador and career diplomat)