How did Bashar’s Syria tame democratic Pakistan?
On Dec. 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 among 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 the use of chemical weapons. Islamabad failed to take the position commensurate with its history of standing against human rights violations, championing decolonization and standing by the Bosnian people.
Why does a country seeking to draw the world’s attention to what it describes as “Indian atrocities in Kashmir” not oppose much worse barbarism against helpless people? The obvious excuse is based on collective ignorance. Politicians and media persons alike generally attribute the Syrian uprising to the American conspiracy to destabilize another Muslim majority country.
The real drivers behind the iniquitous Syria policy are far different. In March 2011 when the Syrian uprising began, Asif Zardari was the president of Pakistan.
Zardari paid a two-day visit to Syria in January 2010 and both sides agreed to revive relations to a level comparable with those of 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 were significant.
The Assads and the Bhuttos share a history, which does not help Syria’s image in Pakistan. After General Ziaul Haq deposed Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, his sons Murtaza and Shahzawaz took refuge in Kabul. The two gathered loyalists to form Al-Zulfiqar, a clandestine platform with the sole aim of avenging Ali Bhutto’s death.
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 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 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 were Pakistani troops deployed to defend Damascus in the Ramadan war of 1973, but its pilots also flew Syrian airforce MiGs and shot down Israeli aircraft over its capital. Considering their 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 the 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 Assad.
By 2012, Pakistani Shiites from Parachinar in Kurram Agency to southern Punjab and Sindh were fighting for the Assad regime under the banner of the Zeinabiyoun Brigade.
As far back as May 2013, then-president Zardari met the visiting Syrian deputy foreign minister in Karachi. Come February 2015, Senate Chairman Syed Nayyer Hussain Bokhari took a three-member Senate delegation to Damascus and called on Assad. The foreign ministry spokesperson downplayed the sojourn, terming it a private affair.
The 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.
Meanwhile, the parliament 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 a UN Security Council permanent seat. Amid a growing US tilt toward India, Pakistan has scrambled for a balancing act. With Beijing on its side, Islamabad looked toward Moscow. Seeking the Kremlin’s favor came at a price: the Zardari-era policy of indifference toward Syria will not be trashed.
The Syrian struggle fell prey to systemic disinformation while Syrian opposition 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 with humanitarian assistance for hosting millions of refugees.
Islamabad’s abstention on the Ghouta massacre and violation of the cease-fire agreement echoed last week in the parliament, otherwise silent on Syria for the past seven years. The ruling party has avoided highlighting the issue in public debate for fear of igniting sectarianism. But now the time is up. The Pakistani public is outraged, and sitting on the fence is clearly no more an option, for Milosevic and Assad can not 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. Twitter: @naveed360
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