Pakistan’s Syria Dilemma at the UN

By Naveed Ahmad

The UN Human Rights Council adopted the UK-proposed draft resolution last week against massacres of Syrian civilians and the “use of chemical weapons in East Ghouta”. Besides Iraq and Egypt, Pakistan abstained. On December 21, 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution establishing a mechanism to assist in the investigation of serious crimes committed in Syria since 2011. Pakistan was amongst 52 abstentions. Islamabad’s abstention from voting on the situation in Syria has been consistent be it New York or Geneva.

During 2012-2013 as a non-permanent member of the Security Council, Pakistan continued to look on as Assad’s military crossed all lines of excessive use of force, including use of chemical weapons. Islamabad failed to take the position commensurate with its history of standing against human rights violations, championing decolonisation and standing by the Bosnian people.

Why does a country seeking the world’s attention to Indian atrocities in Kashmir not oppose much worse barbarism against hapless people? The obvious excuse is based on collective ignorance. Politicians and media persons alike generally attribute the Syrian uprising to the American conspiracy to destabilise another Muslim majority country. The hatred against the US has become a convenient coat-hanger in Pakistan for all sorts of problems. If Washington’s role in Afghanistan, Iraq and drone attacks in Pakistan’s northwest was not enough, Donald Trump’s boisterous rhetoric serves the conspiracy theorists perfectly well.

The real drivers behind iniquitous Syria policy are far different. In March 2011 when the Syrian uprising began, Benazir’s widower Asif Zardari was not only the head of People’s Party, the dominant entity in the ruling coalition but also the country’s president. Zardari paid a two-day visit to Syria in January 2010 and both sides agreed to revive relations with those during the Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s era. En route to London, he again stopped over in August to invite Bashar for a state visit. Though the Syrian tyrant never reciprocated, his meetings with Zardari would go a long way.

The Assads and the Bhuttos share a history, which does not help Syria’s image in Pakistan. After military dictator General Ziaul Haq deposed Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, his sons Murtaza and Shahzawaz took refuge in Kabul. They were young and angry. With the support of the Soviet Union and Afghanistan, the duo gathered loyalists to form Al-Zulfiqar, a clandestine platform with the sole aim to take ZAB’s revenge. The mentors and financiers of the second terrorist organisation against Pakistani state after the India-sponsored Mukti Bhani were spread all the way to Syria and Libya. In March 1981, a Peshawar-bound Pakistan International Airlines aircraft was hijacked and first diverted to Kabul. Over the next 13 days, the Pakistani nation and the passengers aboard the fateful plane went through harrowing times. After a bloody drama on the tarmac in Kabul, the airliner was flown to Damascus to be welcomed by Hafez Al-Assad’s generals and feted as state guests. “If 50 activists of Peoples’ Party are not freed, six American nationals aboard will be killed,” the two Bhutto siblings demanded.

Though Syria-Pakistan relations had never been excellent, they were cordial at best, largely due to Islamabad’s active military support in all the wars fought against Israel. Not only Pakistani troops were deployed to defend Damascus in Your Kapur war but its pilots also flew Syrian air force MiGs and shot down Israeli aircraft over its capital. Considering the brotherly ties, General Zia sent Major General Rahim Khan to Damascus for negotiations but Syria did not oblige. Pakistan freed the political activists and flew them to the Syrian capital in exchange for innocent passengers of flight PK-326. Al-Zulfiqar later tried to kill Zia in multiple failed attempts.

After Benazir Bhutto’s murder, President Zardari aspired to revive special relations with Bashar al-Assad who had become an asset for Iran’s regime, which the PPP leader enormously endeared. [It was a common knowledge during his presidency that the road to Zardari’s mind goes through Iranian embassy. The era happens to be the coldest period of Pakistan-Saudi Arabia relations. A female MP, who recently joined the PTI, flew to Tehran to seek its blessing  to avert her sacking from the cabinet slot.] As the Syria uprising intensified, Pakistan’s allies in the Arab world, as well as Turkey, severed ties with Syria. Zardari persisted, blaming the upheaval on foreign conspirators.

For Pakistan’s opposition parties, foreign policy beyond relations with US, Afghanistan and India was not of much interest while the military was bogged down fighting terrorism, which spiked during the era.

By 2012, Pakistani Shiites from Parachinar in Kurram Agency to southern Punjab and Sindh were fighting for the Assad regime under the banner of Zeinabiyoun brigade. Iran trained them and financed their dependents. The dead mercenaries are buried in Iran while the deceased’s dependents are paid monetarily. The surviving fighters and their dependents became eligible for Iranian nationality after a legislation last year.

As back as May 2013, the then president Zardari met the visiting Syrian deputy foreign minister in Karachi. On March 28, 2013, he signed Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline at a rip-off tariff. Come February 2015, Senate Chairman Syed Nayyer Hussain Bokhari had the audacity to take a three-member Senate delegation to Damascus and call on Assad. The foreign ministry spokesperson downplayed the sojourn terming it a private affair. Pakistan Muslim League has never publicly condemned Assad, both as an opposition party or the ruling entity. Neither did the Sharif government send humanitarian assistance for refugees to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan nor cut diplomatic relations with the Assad regime.

After Zardari’s and his party-led government completed their terms in the office, Iran stepped in full frontal on the public diplomacy front. The left-leaning journalists and policy nerds teamed up with Ayatollah Khomeini’s fans in media as well as the polity. If anyone could excel in deploying social media to push a narrative in Pakistan, it is not America but Iran. The supporters of Syrian awakening remained suppressed beneath the noise against ISIS and Wahabism.

The parliament, which did not question ridiculous Iran gas pipeline agreement in 2013, acted hyperactively on issues like sending troops to Yemen or joining the Saudi-led coalition against terrorism. Meanwhile, Iran and its admirers brought up the farce notion of neutrality in an intra-Ummah dispute against the notion of national interest. Neither Pakistan’s constitution seeks neutrality in foreign affairs nor can it be practiced with a country maintaining defense agreements with its foes. During his February visit, Rouhani has further deepened strategic ties with Delhi while supporting its candidature for UNSC permanent seat. After all, India boasts to be home to the second largest Shiite population after Iran.

Amidst growing US tilt towards India, Pakistan’s scrambled for a balancing act. With Beijing on its side, Islamabad looked towards Moscow. Seeking the Kremlin’s favor came at a price: the Zardari-era policy of indifferent approach on Syria won’t be trashed.

The Syrian struggle fell prey to systemic disinformation while its leaders had no strategy of engaging the leadership and the public of other important countries.  The least Islamabad could have done was to support the allied countries – Turkey and Iraq – with humanitarian assistance for hosting millions of refugees.

Islamabad’s abstention on Ghouta massacre and violation of ceasefire agreement echoed last week in the parliament, otherwise mum on Syria for the last seven years. The ruling party has avoided bringing the issue in public debate for the fear of sectarianism. But now the time’s up. The Pakistani public is outraged, and sitting on the fence is clearly no more an option, for Milosevic and Assad can’t be told apart.

Naveed Ahmad is an investigative journalist and academic based in the GCC with a career in writing on diplomacy, security and governance. Besides other honors, he won the Jefferson Fellowship in 2000 and UNAOC Cross-Cultural Reporting Award 2010. He tweets @naveed360

Original Source: Arab News

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