While offering denials of any change in the country’s policy on Syria, the official spokespersons have succeeded in confirming that a change — and a dangerous one — has, indeed, taken place.
The debate on this question in political circles and the media began with the release of a joint statement at the conclusion of the Saudi crown prince’s overly-publicised visit. All knowledgeable observers were taken by surprise by the call for immediate replacement of the Syrian government with an international authority.
Two points were generally noted. First, Pakistan had never before supported the move for a regime change in Damascus. The decision to take the plunge meant only one thing for all observers except for the purblind or anyone determined not to see facts — that Pakistan had radically changed its policy on Syria. Secondly, since the new policy was presented in a Pakistan-Saudi joint statement, it was reasonable to deduce that the issue must have been raised by the Saudi crown prince and Pakistan had, wittingly or unwittingly, agreed.
The fervour with which the statement was defended by the establishment’s paid apologists, and the anger with which the critics were rebuked, reflected on the authorities’ discomfiture at having been found out. This also confirmed that the departure from the previous policy was a deliberate act.
Then came the disclosure that Saudi Arabia has gifted Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif 1.5 billion dollars. Considerable confusion was caused because the government had apparently failed to agree on a single explanation. At one point, it was said that the Saudis had given Pakistan a loan on the prime minister’s personal guarantee. On other occasions, the story of a personal gift to the prime minister was repeatedly circulated. Even the members of the Cabinet did not appear to be in the know of things.
While in Islamabad, the finance minister was confirming receipt of the Saudi dollars, the foreign minister in London was dismissing media reports on the subject as “rumours”. Any unbiased mind could realise that Pakistan had started receiving what a generally well-informed commentator has described as “lease money”. The receipt of cash in a way put the seal of finality on the deal over Syria.
Since this is a matter that will have far-reaching consequences for Pakistan, the government should welcome a thorough and open debate.
The sins of the Assad dynasty are no secret but no Arab ruler has been overthrown for suppressing his peoples rights. Whatever the character of the uprising against the Syrian regime in the beginning, there is a broad consensus among observers worldwide that the movement has been taken over by sectarian brigades. Only the other day, militants were reported to have moved from the Pak-Afghan border area to Syria to join the rebels.
The reason for the ‘extremists’ interest in Syria lies in its transformation into a Shia majority country. According to a local analyst, who is known for both knowledge and integrity, the Shias were considered a minority so long as the Alavis were not counted among them. One of the reformist decisions taken by Iran’s religious authorities during their revolutionary phase was acceptance of the Alavis — the community to which the Assad family belongs — into the Shia fold, thus reducing Syria’s Sunni community to a minority. The first shots fired at Syria included its suspension from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (the new name of OIC).
Two significant consequences of giving the Syrian regime a sectarian identity quickly followed. First, the polity evolved by the secular, non-sectarian Baath party over several decades collapsed. The leaders of the conservative bloc in the world and their anti-democratic allies in the Arab lands had reason to celebrate this turn of events. The second result cut their celebration short — they could not but see ominous signs in the new Iran-Syria-Hizbollah axis. Israel’s interest in securing a regime change in Syria could not be concealed.
The people of Pakistan have every right to seek assurances from their government that its new Syria policy will not, in any way, operate to the disadvantage of Hizbollah in Lebanon or Palestine or in the interest of Israel. And, as the government enjoys considerable goodwill because of its pledges to uphold democracy, it cannot possibly resist the public call for transparency.
All right. Let us forget all references to a change in policy. We may only see whether the Syria policy can be justified in Pakistan’s interests.
Our rulers have often sworn by Quaid-i-Azam’s seven-word enunciation of the basic principle of Pakistan’s foreign policy — friendship with all and malice towards none. It is necessary to prove that the Syria policy does not carry traces of malice of the kind that led Pakistan to wear the uniform of a Cold War trooper for more than three decades. Further, the Quaid did concede the need for special relations with the Muslim countries. That, one supposes, meant all Muslim countries, and did not imply Pakistan’s becoming a party to Arab-Iran or intra-Arab tussle for hegemony.
We should never forget the cost paid by Pakistan for joining the conservative Arab regimes in their struggle to survive the heat of the Arab awakening of the 1950s, when in order to promote the scheme of Middle East Defence Organisation, Pakistan’s establishment had sabotaged the country’s nascent democratic experiment. Our people should, of course, be concerned at Arab in-fighting but since we are not in a position to broker peace, the best course for us will be to stay neutral and pray that the fratricide in the Arab family will end before the contending parties can cause irretrievable damage to themselves.
References to the Cold War (right up to the Afghanistan conflict) are also necessary to realise the hollowness of the official declarations that Islamabad will send to any country neither troops nor arms. Let us accept that the government means what it says. But that is not enough to prove that Pakistan has not become a partisan in an intra-Arab conflict of much wider significance. Did Pakistan send troops or arms to any country during the Cold War years? Gen. Zia agreed to the purchase of Israeli ammunition for the Afghan Mujahideen and consistently denied the use of Pakistan soldiers or arms in Afghanistan. Did that save Pakistan from paying heavily for the Cold War policies, for its involvement in the Afghan conflict?
The repercussions of the new foreign policy alignment on the home front are likely to be no less serious. In fact, the complications within Pakistan are more easily discernible than the dangers in the external field. One does not wish to sound like an alarmist but it would be dangerous to ignore some of the possible results of the shift in foreign policy.
The proponents of the latest version of fundamentalism may see in the changed situation greater possibilities of spreading their cult of intolerance and violence. They have already destroyed the relationship of mutual respect among the various schools of fiqh by not only declaring members of Muslim sects, other than their own, liable to death but also by displaying their capacity to execute the sentence. The threat of a spurt in sectarian bloodshed is too great to be overlooked.
All talk of madrassa reform is likely to peter out as the forces at the back of the orthodoxy’s seminaries will be in ascendance. They will increase their say in educational matters and attempts to reform the curricula, to purge textbooks of lessons that foster sectarian hatred and violence, could run aground. The conservative elements’ encroachment on public space could also increase.
That women, minority communities, and rights-based civil society organisations could come under greater pressure is obvious. That perhaps does not worry the people at the helm of affairs. What should cause them serious anxiety is the possibility that the extremists who will derive added strength from the foreign policy shift may not spare them either.
All states commit mistakes. The wiser ones are those that know how to take back their wrong decisions.