Pakistan must remain neutral in Middle East


J K Wali

For Pakistan to play the role of a leader, whether in the Muslim world, South Asia, or among pro-democracy forces, it would first need to ensure that it is strong enough to cope with challenges at home.

If Yemen being driven to the brink of collapse by the Saudi bombing campaign isn’t bad enough — assuming our policymakers are aware of what’s happening there — the gut-wrenching images from last Tuesday’s chemical bombing in Syrian city of Khan Sheikhoun should’ve done enough to push Pakistan away from the Middle East.

At a time when one can’t really be sure who was behind the gas attack, taking sides in Syria might end up with Pakistan adding to the horrors of the country which has lost over half a million of its citizens over the past six years.

Of course, this assumes that Pakistan would have a choice over alignments in Syria. With Russia-Iran on one side and US-Saudi on the other, it’s obvious what Islamabad’s participation entails.

This equation becomes all the more problematic when one tries to add ISIS and Assad regime, two primary adversaries in Syria, to the above mentioned equation. While Russia-Iran-Assad form an indubitable alliance, and have done since Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad took over the reins, the US-Saudi-ISIS ‘coalition’ is both too simplistic and perhaps outdated.

Ever since Saudi Arabia got a taste of its own medicine, after ISIS starting targeting the Kingdom, Riyadh has curtailed funding for the group and has limited it to specific factions that are dedicated to dethroning Assad.

Similarly, while the US role in the creation of ISIS courtesy the disastrous Iraq War is well documented, it would be absurd to suggest that Washington has any interest in nourishing the Islamic State, even if it might result in Assad’s elimination.

As things stand the sole US interest in Syria is tackling Russian influence, and with Islamabad’s budding energy and military agreements with Moscow, coupled with continued alienation by Washington, it would not be in Pakistan’s best interests to team up with its ‘traditional allies’.

For Saudi Arabia and Iran, Syria has long been the ground for a protracted proxy war, long before Arab Spring, Iraq War, 9/11 and Soviet disintegration. As the Sunni majority population is ruled by the Shia Alawite family, Syria has both ideological and geopolitical fault-lines, as Riyadh and Tehran continue to wrestle for control over the region.

This is where Pakistan’s participation — and of course the much publicised command — in the 41-country Saudi-led Islamic military alliance becomes complicated.

For starters, it’s neither Islamic nor a military alliance. A large number of the participants are practically honourary members and do not bring any military wherewithal to the table. And of course states like Iraq, Iran, and Syria, are notably missing, making the alliance more Sunni than Islamic.

Even if Pakistan’s official interpretation of the Islamic military alliance is accepted, that the coalition targets terror outfits like ISIS and won’t be aligned against any state or sect, it still doesn’t make sense for Islamabad to participate as things stand.

At a time when ISIS itself has reached Pakistan, through attacks like February’s Sehwan Sharif massacre, not to mention the countless other jihadist groups yet to be tamed in the country, any counter-terror measures should remain within the state till we have completely eliminated the radical Islamist elements.

When your own house is on fire, you don’t go rushing to the next block with the fire hose.

While the Imaam-e-Kaaba’s visit to Pakistan and his touting of Pakistan as the ‘leader of the Ummah’ were qualified by security of the Harmaein Sharifain, Islamabad can indeed play a prominent role in the Muslim world. But not right now.

Militarily, Pakistan still leads the way in the Muslim World, and it is no coincidence that the Saudi-led coalition earmarked Gen (r) Raheel Sharif as the commander to lead the alliance, following his successful operations in many parts of the country.

But for Pakistan to play the role of a leader — whether in the Muslim world, South Asia or among pro-democracy forces — it would first need to ensure that it is strong enough to cope with challenges at home. When we’ve overcome these major hurdles — especially on the terror front — we would be in prime condition to guide others in successfully dealing with jihadist groups.

Till then Pakistan should uncompromisingly focus on its national interests, before joining any ideological allies.

The death sentence for Kulbhushan Yadav would undoubtedly strain diplomatic ties with New Delhi, an aggravation that could go into 2018 and 2019, at the very least, with general elections scheduled in Pakistan and India, respectively. And so, Pakistan would be deep in a two-front struggle with Islamabad’s plate full with both jihadist militancy and diplomatic warfare on the agenda.

Therefore, neutrality in the Middle East would not only allow Pakistan to steer clear of gruesome war crimes in Yemen and Syria, but it would also help keep Islamabad’s focus on local challenges and mulling ways to counter them. And if eliminating ISIS necessitates a plunge into the Middle East crisis, let’s first start with defeating the group’s Khorasan faction in South Asia, which has found many foot soldiers among jihadist militia in Pakistan.courtesy Daily Times Pakistan.