The current turmoil in Syria is creating many divisions within the international community. Pakistan and India recently voted for a UN resolution against the Syrian regime, which Russia and China ultimately vetoed. It appears Pakistan is still trying to curry favor with the West, despite its ongoing support of Iran. How can Pakistan balance its negation of the Iranian sanctions with its vote for Syrian regime change?
It is difficult to walk two sides of a narrative for very long. Eventually, you will have to pick a side. That time is imminent, although not quite here yet, for Pakistan. At the recent UN vote for a resolution on Syria, Pakistan stood by its longest foe India in voting for the resolution. This, despite both countries siding with Iran when the US imposed new sanctions at the beginning of the year.
A big factor for these countries is that the decision-making is no longer about abstract or rhetorical support. Both India and Pakistan have vested interest in Iran, vital to the survival of their economies and to the running of their states. In the past it has been relatively easy to say, “we condemn such and such a nation, for such and such actions” without directly impacting your country’s national interest. Nowadays, there is less room for such making statements without it having direct impact. Particularly, as it pertains to the shifting political ground of the Middle East. Token support or token condemnation seems to be going rapidly out of fashion.
As it stands now, things are not so dire that countries can’t play “Switzerland” at all. However, countries like India and Pakistan will almost certainly be pushed into making their foreign policy less schizophrenic. In a recent Indian Express article, Senior Fellow at the Center for Policy Research in Delhi C. Raja Mohan addresses India’s problematic approach to Middle Eastern politics:
“The problems for India’s Middle East policy emerged when the regional and internal contradictions began to acquire a salience all their own. If India was flummoxed by the shifting regional coalitions, it was utterly unprepared for internal strife in the Arab states and its external consequences.”
The rapid transformation of the region, where old, known “friendly dictators” were suddenly to be condemned for their years of human rights abuses has put countries like India on the spot. Pakistan also has had to navigate these waters, although on somewhat of a lesser tightrope than India, given that it has a more steady narrative regards its neighboring Arab countries, particularly its narrative on Israel.
Pakistan’s vote in favor of the Syrian resolution can be viewed in this context as a last-ditch attempt to curry favor with the West. It is an issue which Pakistan can more easily afford to side with the West on, as it has less direct impact than the Iranian issue.
However for Pakistan, there is also the issue of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. With a president who owns property in Dubai and chooses their medical facilities over those in his own country, Pakistan’s relationship with the Arabian Peninsula is crucial, to put it lightly. This could explain the vote on Syria at the UN as well.
The Arab League have been calling for intervention in Syria and for regime change, despite the findings of its own Observer Mission to Syria that the Syrian Government appeared ready to comply with the Mission’s requests, in one passage stating:
“It should be noted that the Syrian Minister of Defence, in a meeting with the Head of the Mission that took place on 5 January 2012, affirmed his readiness to accompany the Head of the Mission to all sites and cities designated by the latter and from which the Mission suspects that the military presence had not yet been withdrawn, with a view to issuing field orders and rectifying any violation immediately.”
The Mission report also stated that civilians adamantly oppose international intervention. More worrying still, the Mission also reported that:
“there is an armed entity that is not mentioned in the [Mission] protocol. This development on the ground can undoubtedly be attributed to the excessive use of force by Syrian Government forces in response to protests that occurred before the deployment of the Mission demanding the fall of the regime. In some zones, this armed entity reacted by attacking Syrian security forces and citizens, causing the Government to respond with further violence. In the end, innocent citizens pay the price for those actions with life and limb.”
The Head of the Mission, Muhammad Ahmad Mustafa Al-Dabi recommended that political dialogue is the solution in Syria, rather than intervention.
The Mission’s recommendations have been by and large ignored by the Arab League, who are leading the call for intervention in Syria. No doubt they also bring great pressure to bear on their friends like India and Pakistan to side with them on this issue.
However this puts Pakistan at odds with its great friend China. Saudi Arabia has slammed the vetoes by Russia and China at the UN as shaking the “confidence of the world in the United Nations” and that the move was “unfavorable.” How does Pakistan reconcile this? It may not have to immediately. The deciding straw may come in the form of an Israeli attack on Iran.
The Israelis have been upping the ante on Iran in the past week, pushing for direct action on its nuclear installations before the Iranians move into a further developed stage, where attack will not be able to neutralize the nuclear threat. Pakistan’s High Commissioner to Britain Wajid Shamsul Hasan told the UK’s Sun on Wednesday that in the event of such an attack, Pakistan would side with Iran, adding that it “wouldn’t like to be seen as part of Israel’s campaign against any country.” There is also the issue of Pakistan’s Shiite population to consider, which would certainly impact the decision to side with Iran.
However in another twist, a report surfaced in the UK Times that Saudi Arabia had an unspoken agreement to purchase nuclear weaponry from Pakistan in the event that Iran acquires nuclear weapons technology.
As Iran and Saudi Arabia are arguably the two biggest rivals in the Gulf and the larger Middle East, Pakistan is hedging its bets at present, however their ability to continue to do so has a short-lived use-by date, at best.