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Syrian vortex

August 11, 2012

THE foreign minister’s statement at the Tehran meeting on Syria symbolises Pakistan’s dilemma — the tightrope walking Islamabad has to do on an issue in which it finds its friends and allies divided. Foreign Minister Khar said Islamabad was opposed to foreign intervention in Syria because that would complicate a situation “already very complex”. She was also “disturbed” over reports that Al Qaeda was infiltrating Syria. Open to various interpretations, her speech could be construed as supportive of an authoritarian regime whose crackdown on democracy protesters has so far led to over 20,000 fatalities in a 17-month-old conflict. But more likely, the foreign minister’s stand was rooted in Pakistan’s traditional opposition to foreign intervention in a country’s internal affairs. To that extent, Ms Khar’s speech was a reiteration of this country’s long-standing approach to foreign interventions: discourage them as much as possible and wherever possible, with the unspoken fear in the background being that perhaps too much international adventurism could one day lead to Pakistan itself being caught in the international cross-hairs.

Beyond that, Ms Khar’s statement was a disappointment. The savage crackdown by the Assad regime against the Syrian rebels ought to have drawn greater censure. Instead, all Foreign Minister Khar offered was this: “We would urge both the Syrian government and the opposition groups to exercise restraint for the safety and security of the civilian population.” Perhaps in deciding to stick to its long-standing policy of non-intervention and non-interference, the foreign ministry calculated that condemnation of the Assad regime would undercut Pakistan’s other, more central message. The problem is that a Syrian policy has to be located in Pakistan’s other interests. To stand in Tehran and tacitly express support for a Syrian regime whose struggle against its people has also taken a sectarian — Shia vs Sunni — hue is to be tone-deaf to the dangerous faultlines that exist in the region.

Since petrodollars and the Iranian revolution turbo-charged the Shia-Sunni rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan has played a delicate game: stay on the right side of the powerful and rich Saudi monarchy, while also acknowledging the reality of a shared border with Iran. In the Syrian case, the lines have been firmly drawn in the Persian-Arab rivalry: Iran supporting the Assad regime; Saudi Arabia backing the rebels. So while trying to show some leadership in the Muslim world or just trying to reiterate Pakistan’s traditional foreign-policy stance, the foreign ministry must be careful to not get sucked into the Syrian vortex. President Assad may soon be consigned to the dustbin of history; Pakistan will still have to deal with both Iran and Saudi Arabia.