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This is not our war (Syria edition)

This is not our war (Syria edition)

Well if things weren’t bad or stupid enough, they’re about to get worse and stupider.

Here’s a graph of Muslim countries, ordered by the percentage of their population that is Shia (I averaged the numbers here, here, and here).

Shia pop

What you will see is that of the countries that have non-trivial numbers of Shias (above 15%), they are either majority Shia or are oil-rich rentier authoritarian states or have experienced massive sectarian based civil wars (not all mutually exclusive). Except Pakistan. For now.

What Pakistan is doing vis-a-vis Syria is one of the dumbest things Pakistan has done in a long time, and that’s really saying something. The Syrian civil war, tragic as it is, has nothing to do with Pakistan. Pakistan has no interests in that conflict. None.

Last summer, in the course of interviewing Islamists for a project, I heard an ASWJ rep go on about Syria and what a tragedy it is blah blah. What struck me at the time was how weird it was to hear him talk about Syria — not because it was weird for him per se, but because I was so unused to hearing about Syria in Pakistan. It wasn’t on the news. No politicians or generals talked about it. No typical drawing room stuff either. It really wasn’t an issue anyone cared about. Only ASWJ.

Well, it appears the ASWJ logic has worked its way up the food chain, thanks to some friendly prodding from the Saudis. The developments here mirror a bad horror movie, where you can see where the plot is going thanks to a very stupid protagonist who doesn’t know any better, and yet one is powerless to stop it because, duh, that’s what happens in horror movies. And evidently Pakistan’s foreign policy.

First, the Saudis came by for a chat, and this happened:

The two sides signed agreements under which the latter will provide a total of around US $183 million for the import of urea fertiliser from Saudi Arabia and the construction of a hydro-power project in Chitral.

The signing ceremony held at the PM House and was witnessed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud.

Vice Chairman, Managing Director Saudi Development Fund, Yousef Bin Ibrahim Al-Bassam and Secretary Economic Affairs Nargis Sethi signed the agreements on behalf of their respective sides.

Under the first agreement, Saudi Arabia will provide a credit facility of US $125 million for the import of Urea fertiliser from Saudi Arabia.

Whereas under the second agreement, Saudi Arabia will provide an additional loan of $57.8 million for the construction of a 106MW Golen Gol hydro-power project at River Mastuj in Chitral.

At the same time, the following statement was released, Pakistan’s first tip-toe into the Syrian civil war ocean:

The two sides reiterated the need for finding of a quick solution of the existing conflict in Syria according to Geneva I Resolution in order to restore peace and security in Syria and prevent bloodshed of the brotherly Syrian people.

In this regard both sides called for the following:

- Importance of immediate withdrawal of all foreign armed forces and elements from Syrian territory.

- Lifting siege of the Syrian towns and villages and stopping aerial and artillery bombardment.

-  The setting up of safe corridors and regions to deliver food and humanitarian aid to besieged Syrian citizens, under international supervision.

- The formation of transitional governing body with full executive powers enabling it to take charge of the affairs of the country.

Sure enough, a few days later, it appears that Pakistan is agreeing to arm the Syrian rebels, and not just with night-vision goggles either.

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia is in talks with Pakistan to provide anti-aircraft and anti-tank rockets to Syrian rebels to try to tip the balance in the war to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, a Saudi source said Sunday.

The United States has long opposed arming the rebels with such weapons, fearing they might end up in the hands of extremists, but Syrian opposition figures say the failure of Geneva peace talks seems to have led Washington to soften its opposition.

Pakistan makes its own version of Chinese shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, known as Anza, and anti-tank rockets — both of which Riyadh is trying to get for the rebels, said the source, who is close to Saudi decision-makers, requesting anonymity.

The source pointed to a visit to Riyadh earlier this month by Pakistan’s army chief of staff, General Raheel Sharif, who met Crown Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz.

Meanwhile, in what appears to be an unrelated development, the Iranian consulate in Peshawar was attacked yesterday by a group called “Mast Gul”, which I must confess I had never heard of before until today Mast Gul, a former HuM militant with a Kashmir focus.

Is it wise and advisable to wade into a sectarian civil war two thousand miles away? Obviously not. Some states can afford to do so, and bless their heart, they are intervening to their heart’s content. So be it. We do not have to join them. Just examine the trajectory of sectarian violence over the last decade (data source).

Sectarian terrorism

 

Up till now, one could plausibly argue that the arms of the state, both political or military, were not directly involved in the wave of sectarian violence. Notwithstanding local-level alliances between powerful parties and sectarian parties such as ASWJ and Sunni Tehreek, the Pakistani state has essentially had a hands off/see no evil/Don’t Ask Don’t Tell type of policy regarding sectarian issues.

Such a policy will no longer be possible in a world in which Pakistan is arming Syrian rebels to the teeth and dancing to the Saudi tune. The questions our decision-makers should be asking themselves are:

1. What are the possible ramifications for such a policy on sectarian violence in Pakistan? Is it likely to exacerbate and make more deadly sectarian cleavages or the opposite?

2. What are the possible benefits that will accrue to Pakistan following a rebel victory in Syria?

3. What are the possible costs of this policy to Pakistan’s relationship with Iran? Is it still interested in, say, the gas pipeline that’s supposed to solve the energy crisis in one fell magical swoop? Does Pakistan want to be a in a position where three of its four neighbors do not like Pakistan?

4. Has Pakistan considered the possibility that despite (and maybe because of) the myriad foreign interveners in the conflict, that Assad somehow muddles through, and doesn’t actually lose power? What then?

If Saudi Arabia and Iran want to play proxy war in Syria, that’s their prerogative. I really don’t see the logic of why Pakistan should join them — it is not a majority Shia state like Iran, nor a major Sunni power like Saudi, nor does it have any pressing geostrategic interests in Syria. The clarion calls of “this is not our war”, well-rehearsed and inaccurately applied over the last decade, are now more apt than ever. Pakistan should stay out.

About Ahsan Butt

Assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason.

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