ISLAMABAD: The opposition on Monday protested in parliament against what it called a policy shift by Pakistan over Syria’s civil war, but the government seemed ill-prepared to respond to the charge of a tilt towards the Syrian rebels as well as to calls to explain its next move after the collapse of peace talks with Taliban militants.

After opposition lawmakers raised protests in both the houses of parliament on the opening days of their new spring sessions, a minister assured the National Assembly that it “will be taken into confidence” on both the issues possibly after a federal cabinet meeting on Tuesday, while the leader of the house in the Senate dismissed the talk of policy change over Syria as mere propaganda.

Speculation about a shift from Pakistan’s traditional policy of non-interference in the affairs of Muslim countries emanated from a joint declaration issued last week at the end of a visit to Islamabad by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud that called for the “formation of a transitional governing body” in Syria and media reports that Saudi Arabia was in talks with Pakistan to provide anti-aircraft and anti-tank rockets to the rebels.

Leader of Opposition in the National Assembly, Khursheed Ahmed Shah of the PPP, suggested Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif come to the lower house to explain what he called “a complete foreign policy about-turn” as well as the causes of failure of peace talks with the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and his next move.

He said Pakistan should have worked for peace in Syria instead of taking sides and warned the government that any weapons injected into the conflict could fall into the hands Al Qaeda militants fighting against President Bashar al-Assad.

Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf vice chairman Shah Mahmood Qureshi said press reports about the issue indicated that the government was taking “a very big u-turn in foreign policy”. He criticised the government for apparently being in a dilemma over its next move to deal with the Taliban or “playing a second fiddle” amid targeted strikes by air force jets against suspected militant hideouts over the past few days.

Awami Muslim League leader Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, who claimed that troop movement into the tribal areas had already begun for a possible military operation against Taliban, walked out of the house in what he called a boycott of the remainder of the house sitting after Science and Technology Minister Zahid Hamid called opposition charges as only speculative and before promising that “this house will be taken into confidence” on both the issues after Tuesday’s cabinet meeting.

He did not return to the house until it was adjourned to 4pm on Tuesday, as did PPP lawmakers who walked out later to protest alleged interference of federal paramilitary forces in a Saturday by-election in Azad Kashmir for a legislative assembly seat. The election was won by a PML-N candidate against a PPP candidate.

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s Asif Hasnain, whose party organised a big anti-Taliban rally in Karachi on Sunday, called for a military operation against the militants without delay.

A Jamaat-i-Islami lawmaker from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sher Akbar Khan, one of whose party members was on a Taliban committee which negotiated with a government team, asked the government to “take the house into confidence” and also call an “all-party conference” before launching any operation against the militants.

In the Senate, PPP’s parliamentary leader Raza Rabbani regretted that the government did not consult the upper house standing committees on defence and foreign affairs before making a “major foreign policy shift” which, he said, amounted to Pakistan recognising external moves for a regime change in Syria and trying for a rebirth to General Ziaul Haq’s policy on Afghanistan in the 1980s in “another shape”.

Mr Rabbani, who also called for a comprehensive debate in the house on the issue, was supported by Kamil Ali Agha of the PML-Q, while Afrasiab Khattak of the ANP said Pakistan’s interference in the Syrian crisis could lead to a civil war in this country.

Raja Zafarul Haq of the PML-N, the leader of the house, assured the house that there was no foreign policy change over Syria.

But he promised to convey to the prime minister the opposition demand for an in-camera briefing.

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