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Pakistan Denies Supporting Syria Rebels

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif meeting Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud on February 17, 2014.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif meeting Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud on February 17, 2014.
Pakistan has vehemently denied striking any deal with Saudi Arabia to supply arms to Riyadh-backed Syrian rebels.

The denial followed a news report this week, which claimed that Islamabad is in talks with Riyadh to provide anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels to bolster their fight against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian leader's forces have made significant gains against rebels in recent months.

The news generated controversy in Pakistan, which prompted debate in the country's parliament about who Islamabad is really backing in the three-year-old Syrian war. Khursheed Shah, opposition leader in the lower house of the parliament, asked the government to explain its reported Syria policy change.

"We should learn from the consequences of our previous policy of interference and make efforts for peace without inviting any problem," Shah told lawmakers. He added that Islamabad's backing of anti-Soviet Islamist rebels in neighboring Afghanistan in the 1980s ultimately backfired, as it promoted extremism abroad and prompted homegrown terrorism, which now afflicts Pakistan.

Hassan Askari Rizvi, a leading foreign policy commentator, notes that Islamabad’s alleged tilt toward Riyadh comes after a flurry of diplomatic activities this year. Rizvi wrote that Prime Minister Nawaz Shaif's closeness to Saudi Arabia and a recent joint statement calling for "the formation of a transitional governing body with full executive powers enabling it to take charge of the affairs of the country [Syria]" is likely to entangle Pakistan in conflicts between Arab countries.

Islamabad's official line is to deny a foreign policy shift. Pakistani foreign office spokeswomen Tasnim Aslam told journalists that Islamabad does not "subscribe to the theory of regime change in any country." She added that Islamabad supports a dialogue among Syrian people about their political future.

Veteran journalist Nusrat Javed noted that Riyadh might not have asked Islamabad for weapons, which are abundant in Saudi arsenals, requiring instead that Pakistan provide expertise and manpower to train Syrian rebels in Jordan. Pakistani officials have so far not addressed this aspect.

Assad is a close ally of Iran's Shi'ite theocratic regime. His minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam. Assad's three-year-old war effort against the predominantly Sunni rebels has been bolstered by Hizballah, the Lebanese Shi'ite militant group supported by Tehran.

Observers fear that an alliance between Islamabad and Riyadh on Syria will push it deeper into the Shi'ite-Sunni sectarian conflict now raging across the Middle East. During the past three decades, thousands of Pakistani Shi'ites have been killed in attacks by Sunni extremists reportedly supported by Saudi Arabia. Shi'ite extremist factions have reacted by resisting Sunni radicals and have reached out to Iran for help.

Blogger Ahsan Butt has asked Pakistani policymakers a pertinent question. "What are the possible ramifications for such a policy on sectarian violence in Pakistan? Is it likely to exacerbate and make sectarian cleavages more deadly, or the opposite?"

Abubakar Siddique