Pakistan’s goodwill toward Syria
Pakistan has remained steadfast in its policy toward Syria ever since the Syrian revolution began in 2011. It never closed its diplomatic mission in Damascus nor did it attend any of the “Friends of Syria” meetings which were often sponsored by western countries. It was alleged in the beginning that Pakistan’s pro-Bashar Assad policy was due to a friendship between the Bhutto and Assad families. This may have been partially true.
However, the government of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, which came to power in 2013, felt no need to change the established status quo which Prime Minister Imran Khan continues to maintain.
The reasons for Pakistan’s stance are not difficult to fathom. It had witnessed what foreign interventions can do to a country – as in the case of Iraq and Libya – and the price one has to pay for it too. However, more than that, Pakistan itself was dismembered in 1971 due to foreign intervention. It was, therefore, of a firm belief that established governments should only be changed politically and without any external ‘maneuvers.’
Having gone through the tragic consequences of external intervention, how could it condone a similar situation in Syria? It has, therefore, opposed a military solution and supported an inclusive dialogue to resolve the crisis.
Pakistan has traditionally enjoyed cordial relations with Syria. To help Syria during the October War of 1973, Pakistan sent a small contingent of its air force to Damascus. Although their role was purely defensive and more focused on training, this gesture on part of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto won the country a lot of Syrian goodwill. However, economic relations could not flourish in those days as the public sector dominated foreign trade in Syria. I was posted in Damascus during that time and have witnessed all these developments first hand.
Mindful of the tremendous suffering that the Syrian people were being subjected to, Pakistan issued a statement in February 2012 which supported the “formation of a transitional body with full executive powers to take charge of the country (Syria)”. In 2013, Pakistan officially condemned the use of chemical weapons in Ghouta in southwestern Syria but simultaneously cautioned the United States against any surgical strikes. It maintained that Syria’s independence and territorial integrity must be respected at all times.
It is good to learn that two Arab Gulf countries have recently re-opened their embassies in Damascus, while US troops are likely to depart soon.
Pakistan’s voting record at the United Nations also depicts empathy with the Syrian government. In 2012, it voted along with China and Russia against a resolution which condemned the violence in Syria. In December 2015, Pakistan categorically-stated that a change in Assad’s government by force was unacceptable.
Various current indicators show that the Syrian crisis could be coming to an end. With 400,000 dead and half of the population displaced, Syria presents a tragedy of horrendous proportions. Syria was always a mainstream Arab nation and should remain so. The attempt to change its identity was an aberration that is bound to terminate. It is good to learn that two Arab Gulf countries have recently re-opened their embassies in Damascus, while US troops are likely to depart soon. The UN, for its part, has appointed Geir Pedersen as its new Special Envoy to Syria who has started his daunting task of reviving peace talks.
Even though the government is in the strongest position since 2011, any attempt to impose a one-sided peace arrangement would prove to be counter-productive. The Assad family has ruled Syria since 1970 and out of that President Bashar’s share alone has been 18 years. I am sanguine he would not like to be remembered as the civil war president and should now re-double his efforts for peace. There is an urgent need to heal the deep wounds inflicted on the Syrian psyche. A national level Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the need of the day.
Pakistan enjoys a fair degree of goodwill in Syria and is happy that Syria was not dismembered. It is also confident that the great Syrian people will rise from the ashes to reconstruct their country. I personally know that the Arab nationalist feelings are an essential part of the Syrian psyche. Syria, therefore, should come back to the Arab fold. It would have learned by now that any extraordinary non-Arab influence would be against its national interests. Pakistan should play its legitimate role for the revival of the Syrian role in the OIC and bring it closer to the Arab countries who could play a leading role in its reconstruction.
– Javed Hafeez is a former Pakistani diplomat with much experience of the Middle East. He writes weekly columns in Pakistani and Gulf newspapers and appears regularly on satellite TV channels as a defense and political analyst.