As Pakistan enjoys the windfall of the $1.5 billion gift from Saudi Arabia, some have speculated that the real cost behind this aid could be a shift in Pakistan’s previously-non-interventionist policy towards Syria. Pakistan’s involvement in the Middle East has always been opaque, perhaps because the nation’s leaders must delicately balance relationships with feuding regional superpowers: Saudi Arabia, Pakistan’s consistent benefactor, and Iran, Pakistan’s neighbour. However, with the Middle East exploding in sectarian/proxy conflicts, Pakistan’s leadership would be well advised in keeping its distance in order to accord with international law and to avoid an increase in domestic sectarian violence. Sartaj Aziz was recently questioned on the aid payment from Saudi Arabia in connection to Pakistan’s foreign policy towards Syria. He explained that the payment was not connected to any preconditions on Pakistan changing its policy on Syria. He explained that “we support international efforts to find a peaceful Syria-led inclusive solution being pursued under the Geneva peace process through a comprehensive political dialogue”. He went on to assert that Pakistan had no plans of arming Syrian rebel groups and would abide by international law with any weapons sales.
Interestingly enough, he added that “Pakistan calls for immediate withdrawal of all foreign armed forces and groups from Syria”. While this could mean that Pakistan disavows support for all violent groups acting in Syria, this phrase has often been used as a code-word referring to Iran’s direct support of the Assad regime. At the same time, Iran has accused Saudi Arabia of supporting rebels in Syria, who are suspected of having committed heinous acts against civilians and secular rebel groups.
In a worst case scenario, if Saudi Arabia expects Pakistan to return its $1.5 billion ‘favour’ with support in Syria, Pakistan could be providing arms to Syrian rebels. These same rebels may go on to commit brutal sectarian murders in Syria. Even worse, if history were to repeat itself, whenever Pakistan assists ‘jihadis’ to fight abroad, the fighters eventually come back to Pakistan. This is frightening when one considers an influx of battle-hardened fighters, who could set a brutally tragic course for Shia Pakistanis. Even if one were to set aside the domestic implications of Pakistan’s involvement in Iran and Saudi Arabia’s proxy wars, there is also the issue of international law and reciprocity. Last month, there was an alleged incursion of terrorists from Pakistan into Iran, who allegedly killed several border guards and kidnapped others. The guards remain unrecovered and Iran has threatened to conduct cross-border raids if there was any violation of international law by Pakistan. In response, Pakistan has alleged that any cross-border raid by Iran would violate international law and Pakistan’s right to territorial sovereignty. However, how seriously will Iran treat Pakistan’s sovereignty, if it is discovered that Pakistan is assisting anti-state rebels and violating Syria’s sovereignty?
Even still, the law fairly clearly protects every nation’s right to territorial integrity, so Pakistan can maintain its legal position that Iran’s threats to conduct cross-border raids violate international law. However, this position is contingent on whether Pakistan abides by its international legal duties to stop international terrorists from operating within its borders.
A country as economically-strapped as Pakistan is can’t easily refuse a $1.5 billion gift. Such a gift is indeed a blessing if it is truly not contingent on Pakistan taking an active role in Saudi Arabia’s proxy wars. However, if there is a contingency, Pakistan’s involvement in Syria could have dramatic domestic effects on Pakistan and could violate the same international legal principles (like sovereignty) that Pakistan has tried to defend in the past decade. Beyond these two considerations, Pakistan should also consider how a change in its Mideast policy could damage its relationship with Iran.
Therefore, when policymakers are taking account of the $1.5 billion, if they plan on exchanging ‘services’ for Saudi Arabia’s gift by taking an active role against the Syrian regime, they should take into account all the political, economic and legal fallout that will come for the next decades. They may discover that $1.5 billion may be a drop in the bucket of the losses that Pakistan would endure from adopting such a policy.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 21st, 2014.
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