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13.04.2014 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Pakistan’s Syrian Dilemma: a Test of Diplomacy & Economy

12312A major challenge that has presented itself rather problematically to the foreign policy makers in Pakistan, in the current year, is the crisis in Syria. Not only has it put Pakistan in a conundrum, but also has caused a lot of controversy with regard to its bi-lateral relations with Saudi Arabia on the one hand, and on the other hand, with Iran as also with regard to its changing foreign policy outlook. By implication, Pakistan is caught between devil and the deep sea: it can support Saudi Arabia only at the expense of the “regional pivot” it has been trying to make for last two-three years now, which significantly includes inculcating ‘better’ relations both with Iran and Russia. In this complex web of inter-state relations, the crisis in Syria has turned out to be a pendulum, swinging Pakistan from one side to other, and forcing it to ‘play’ diplomacy to secure its vital interests, which are both geo-political and geo-economic. 

In simple words, the Syrian case has turned out to be a test of Pakistan’s diplomacy, requiring a stance that should serve the interest of the state; and, Pakistani authorities are also not unmindful of the importance of its “regional pivot” in bringing Pakistan out of the particular crisis she itself has been facing since the commencement of the US led ‘war on terror.’ 

It is perhaps for this reason that Pakistan started with openly supporting the stance taken by Russia, China and Iran on Syria. Not only has Pakistan been supporting the idea of a negotiated solution of the crisis, but also manifesting its policy stance by practically participating in conferences, such as the one held in Tehran in 2012, on resolving the crisis through “political channels.” As a result of this policy, not only did Pakistan abstain from voting on an anti-Syria resolution in the United Nations Security Council but also decided to clearly ally with the anti-US and anti-Western league of countries on the issue of Syria. Pakistan sided with Iran, China and Russia in opposing foreign intervention in Syria on the principle that the international community must respect the sovereignty of Syrian borders and help negotiate a peaceful outcome instead of starting another war in the Middle East. The policy primarily resulted from Pakistan’s own sufferings at the hands of American drone strikes along its Western borders that have provoked strong resentment among the people in Pakistan. The decision to support the Syrian government against foreign intervention is significant in that it underscores Pakistan’s shift in international policies from being the ‘strongest’ non-NATO ally of the US in almost all policy matters to tilting towards the China-Pakistan-Iran-Russia regional alliance as a power centre radically opposite to the US’ stance. It may also be given substance as a ‘typical’ response to the increasing multi-polarity in the world with China being the economic giant threatening America, not with war but with global markets.

But the recent visit of Saudi high officials to Pakistan is being stated to have caused a shift in Pakistan’s official policy towards Syria—a shift which Pakistan has officially denied. But, on the other hand, it has also been reported in various media network that Pakistan has been covertly supporting Saudi Arabia in the Syrian civil war for some time now. As such, one part of the joint statement released during the Saudi defense minister’s visit states that both countries will work towards “the formation of transitional governing body with full executive powers enabling it to take charge of the affairs of the country”—the implication being that President Assad should no longer govern. Ironically, the call for the establishment of any transitional setup also implies violation of the principle of “non-intervention”, to which Pakistan, as a victim of the US’ drone attacks, adheres whole-heartedly. However, the reported “shift” of Pakistan and the claim of Pakistan’s covert support to Saudi Arabia were vehemently rejected by Pakistan Prime Minister’s foreign policy adviser, Sartaj Aziz. He said in the Parliament that the impression being projected that Pakistan has taken a foreign policy U-turn under the influence of Saudi Arabia is “irresponsible.” “We vehemently reject the allegation that we are going to sell arms to Syria.”

What seems to have caused this ‘drama’ of statements, and of probable shift in the policy, is the deteriorating relation of Pakistan and Iran specifically, especially since the coming into power of the current government, and the fact that this government has traditionally been pro-Saudis. And then the unusual delay in materialization of the Iran-Pakistan pipeline also seems to have caused friction between the two states, followed by an unfortunate kidnapping incident of the Iranian border soldiers allegedly by Pakistan based militants.

However, notwithstanding the policy Pakistan makes or the alliance it chooses to party with, the Syrian crisis has become a predicament for Pakistan, forcing it to adhere, one at the same time, to the so-called policies of “non-interference” and “non-intervention” as a means of adopting a ‘neutral’ stance, and to suggesting mild “intervention” in the name of establishing transitional government.

The core of Pakistan’s predicament with regard to Syria can be explained by looking at some of the domestic socio-political compulsions. In this regard, this fact cannot be ignored that apart from the global and regional divisions, Pakistan has its own domestic concerns vis-a-vis the sectarian nature of the conflict in Syria. The majority of Pakistan‘s population is Sunni, yet the Shia minority enjoys equal status in all walks of life, notwithstanding currently prevailing environment of sectarian conflict, and their belief system does not figure in at least national politics as a factor of discrimination. This attitude of national culture also governs Pakistan‘s relations with other Muslin countries irrespective of their sectarian complexion. As such, aligning with Saudi Arabia can potentially alienate Pakistan’s sizable Shia population (second largest in the world after Iran’s), which sometimes looks to Iran as a protector.

But this issue seems to lose its significance in the face of more pressing geo-economic factors—hence, the question: why is the Syrian crisis pushing Pakistan to its limits to form a ‘balanced’ diplomatic stance so as to satisfy both sides on the conflict? A probable answer to such a question lies in the extremely fragile condition of Pakistan’s economy, and its over-dependence on the import of oil in the international market. Stability of oil prices and continuous supply of oil is, therefore, crucial for sustaining minimum growth rate, which again is crucial for receiving IMF loans for sustaining growth and development in various sectors.

Now, the fact that the Syrian crisis has made the international markets jetty and the investors nervous over the prospect of a looming conflict in the Middle East, as the West has been flexing its muscles to punish President Assad, who is allegedly suspected to have used chemical weapons. It seems, in this context, improbable that the fallout of the conflict would be any different on Pakistan, especially given these two facts: 1) Pakistan is already suffering, socially and economically, from an intense spate of internal violence and war in the nest door country, Afghanistan. And eruption of large scale sunni-shia conflict in the wake of Syrian crisis would only add fuel to the fire, 2) the highly unstable economy of Pakistan.

While Pakistan is struggling to achieve stabilization and revive growth, the Syrian crisis can shift its goal post farther. Rising oil prices as a result of the crisis can impede stabilization efforts, and the current investor confidence, already quite fragile, may become difficult to sustain even at the current level. And the fact that Syria is also a part of the broader Eurasian energy strategy that unites Iran, Russia, and China, and also the fact that approximately 96.3 percent of the amount of projected natural gas which would be exported to various states would be controlled by Russia, Iran, and Syriaunder this coalition arrangement, also add to the problems of Pakistan as far as security of energy supply is concerned, as also its relations with regional countries, especially China—a country with which Pakistan enjoys special relations and which is expected to become a party to the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline. However, under current circumstance, it seems that the ‘Oil factor’ is more pressing Pakistan than maintaining balanced relations with both sides to the conflict. It would not be wrong to say that both issues are greatly inter-related; for, the very underlying factor of Pakistan’s “regional pivot” is energy security. Following facts highlight what consequences can follow for Pakistan in case of escalation of conflict in Syria.

The Nawaz Sharif government has budgeted oil at the rate of $110 per barrel. At this rate, the oil import bill has been projected at $16 billion for 2013-14. The Oil rate had already reached $117 per barrel in the international market, and is expected to hit $125 in case of heating up of the situation in the Middle East. With oil at $125 billion a barrel, the import bill will escalate by around Rs800 billion or $780 million for the year. Where the additional money to cover for this hike in the import bill will come from is highly uncertain for the policy makers and economists in Pakistan. At a nine per cent tax-to-GDP ratio, it is hard to imagine a cash-strapped government successfully managing the deficit through merely spending cuts.

Despite the goodwill the Nawaz Sharif government enjoys in the business fraternity, the growing uncertainty will weigh heavily on business sentiments. A spike in private investment to perk up growth thus assumes a question mark. Low GDP growth, rising inflation, widening fiscal deficits, and weaker currency will all add up to the country’s economic difficulties. Also, a possible domestic public backlash to the West’s Syria policy may further aggravate the fragile security situation in Pakistan by widening the fissures in an already divided society, and have its own impact on the economy. As such, Pakistan does need to prepare to minimize the fallout of the impending conflict in Syria, which has the potential to blow up, enveloping the entire region.

The analysis shows that the crisis in Syria has much significance for Pakistan even if it refrains from directly engaging itself. Not only is it a foreign policy predicament but also a matter involving significant economic consequences, which Pakistan can certainly not afford under current circumstances. And, if Pakistan chooses to side with Saudi Arabia, needless to say, it will be like adding fuel to the fire to burn one’s own self.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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