Syria is one of the three most important Arab countries, the other two being Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It is a confessional and ethnic mosaic, including Sunni, Shia, Alawites, Christian, Druz, Armenians and Kurds. Its location, between Israel and the Mediterranean Sea, is strategic. It has a large population, by Arab standards, which is educated and enterprising. Syria is a treasure house of some very important Christian and Muslim holy places. Damascus is the oldest continuously ruling capital in the world.
Like the Druz, they do not discuss their faith with others. They have disproportionate presence in the armed forces, which explains as to why this Arab revolt has been the longest and soaked in the blood of over 20,000 Syrians killed so far. The Syrian armed forces, in order to protect the Alawite-Baathist vested interests, have fought the rebels, tooth and nail.
The urban and educated Damascene look down upon the ruling Alawites as rustic and uncouth mountain people, who have, through a very repressive Baathist socialist regime, arrested their political, economic and intellectual potential. In Syria, the bureaucracy, both civil and military, could become Baath party members, a factor that led to the evolution of a very repressive ruling elite, much like the erstwhile Soviet Communist Party. During my three-year posting in Damascus, I saw for myself that most powerful persons were the top brass that were Alawites as well as Baathists.
While bloodshed continues, the conflicting regional interests have made the situation worse. Iran wants Assad’s survival and has helped his regime with cash and kind. Russia and China have helped Assad survive the international political pressure and ward off the UN sanctions. Saudi Arabia and Turkey want a regime change and a new government that is more inclusive and better represents the ground confessional realities.
Israel is sitting on the fence and is nervous about the Assad regime passing its chemical weapons and missiles to Hezbollah in its last moments. The United States and the European Union, in cooperation with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have organised several meetings of the ‘Friends of democratic Syria’. Pakistan has, as a matter of policy, kept away from these meetings.
But the regime is tottering. Last Prime Minister, Riyad Al-Hijab, fled to Jordan last week, using official cavalcade! The UN-Arab League representative Kofi Annan has resigned due to non-cooperation of the Assad regime and stalemate in the Security Council. About 30 military officers of Brigadier rank and above have deserted. Half a million Syrians are now refugees internally or in neighbouring Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
Post-2003 change in Iraq had terribly upset the Saudis and strengthened the Iranian position in the region. The Saudis have spared no effort to get even with Iran in Syria. Divergent international interests and foreign money going to both sides have prolonged the conflict. The Syrian problem has exacerbated divisions in the Islamic world, much to the satisfaction of Israel.
The United States wants a moderate government in Damascus that would not be too hostile to Israel. Turkey wants a friendly and stable Syria that would keep the aspirations of its Kurdish minority in check. For Moscow, which enjoys naval facilities in the port of Tartus, Syria, is the last strategic ally in the Arab world. The problem, however, is that the Syrian opposition has been disjointed and has not produced a strong and united leadership.
The influential Christian minority, with 10 percent population, is sitting on the fence and is not too sure of the rebels. An Indian journalist wrote this in the New York Times last week to highlight Christian sensitivities: “The armed groups that have seized control of the rebellion have been contaminated by Al-Qaeda fighters and corrupted by Saudi money.” Lebanon observes the situation with a lurking fear of a possible civil war in Syria sending its long flames to its neighbour, which is also a confessional and ethnic mosaic.
Pakistan has so far maintained a neutral position saying that the conflict was a matter for the Syrian government and opposition to resolve in accordance with the Annan Plan. Syria is being ruthlessly contested as a top shield by two of Pakistan’s close friends, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain sponsored a resolution in the UN General Assembly, which was put to vote on the 3rd of this month.
Pakistan abstained from voting. Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar’s statement in Tehran shows that Pakistan is walking a tight rope in Syria. At the forthcoming OIC Summit in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan would come under added pressure to take sides. Pakistan’s close friends Saudi Arabia, Turkey and China are sharply divided on the Syrian issue.
Pakistani position has so far been based on support of Syrian sovereignty. Pakistan believes that a regime change in Damascus should not be forced from outside. But we should also not lose sight of the fact that a regime that has killed over 20,000 of its own people cannot retain its legitimacy for long. The voting pattern on the last Saudi sponsored resolution is instructive. The Assad regime is getting more and more isolated abroad.
Islamabad took its own time to recognise new realities in Libya. The reason, perhaps, was the old bond of friendship between Gaddafi and Bhutto. In the Syrian case too Hafez Al-Assad was a great friend of Bhutto. Remember both Libyan and Syrian leaderships hosted Murtaza Bhutto and company after the PIA aircraft hijacking.
But international relations, in my opinion, should not be made hostage to past friendships, which were personal in nature. International relations ought to be based on pragmatic national interest alone. For that reason, we must consult our Saudi and Turkish friends closely and keep all options open.
The writer is a former Ambassador with several Middle East postings. Email: email@example.com