This article was also published at Ground Zero.
As Syria war continues and as Pakistan’s ex-Army Chief General Raheel Sharif is nominated the chief of Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT), it may be time for Pakistanis to revisit the Syrian conflict for a better understanding to reach consensus on what should be Pakistan’s Syria policy, especially after the election of Donald Trump, whose Syria strategy is still unclear even after a clear shift in policy after recent strikes on Syrian Army airbase, which were in response to a chemical attack allegedly by Assad according to U.S. and its allies but disputed by Syrian regime and its allies Russia and Iran. Pakistan, who itself is a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), condemned the chemical attack and called on all parties to find a peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict. What initially started as a civil war has become such a nonsensical quagmire that even the parties involved have little idea where to go from here.
The Parties In Syrian Conflict:
The goal of Turkey in Syria is to oust the Assad regime as well as wage war on and curtail Syrian Kurdish groups affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party, also known as PKK. The conflict between Turkey and Kurds goes back all the way to 1978. In late July 2015 the third phase of this long Kurdish-Turkish conflict started following the failure of a two and a half year long peace dialogue. One of the major reasons behind the failure of the peace process was the war in Syria and the security situation at Turkey-Syria border. Indeed, PKK has been accused of several terrorist attacks in Turkey, including suicide bombings. In Syria, Turkey opposes Assad and supports Syrian rebel and Opposition groups including Free Syrian Army, Ahrar-al-Sham and Jaysh-al-Islam as well as its own proxy groups like Turkish Free Syrian Army.
Saudi Arabia –
The goal of Saudi Arabia in Syria is to limit the Iranian influence which can only be done by ousting Assad, a key Iran regime ally. Saudi Arabia, like Turkey, wants a peaceful resolution for Syrian conflict which would remove Assad. Saudis are also concerned about the rise of Islamic State in Syria and intends to fight it. For these purposes, Saudis support Syrian Opposition and rebel groups financially, which includes financing weapons. Saudi Arabia is the largest financial supporter of Syrian rebels. Saudi Arabia supports groups like Jaish al-Fatah, Jaish al-Islam, Free Syrian Army, Ahrar al-Sham, etc. Saudi Arabia also has limited participation in U.S.-led airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria.
The Qatari involvement in the Syrian civil war started in 2012 and has expanded with time. According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Qatar has been the number one supplier of weapons to the Syrian rebels. Qatar has been supporting a wide range of rebel groups, from West-approved moderate Syrian rebel groups to Al-Qaeda-allied groups. The goal of Qatar, like other backers of the Syrian Opposition and rebels, is to remove Assad but it also shares some common ground with the Saudi goal to cut back Iranian influence. Qatar also operates a training base for Syrian rebels in its own country, training over 1000 rebel fighters in one year. Qatar has also participated in peace talks between Assad regime and its backers and the Syrian Opposition and its backers.
United States of America –
United States, like its Middle Eastern allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar, has been backing the Syrian rebels with money, logistics, training and weapons through Pentagon and CIA. U.S. has tried to support only vetted moderate rebels groups but there have been accusations from the Syrian regime as well Russia that U.S. is supporting extremist groups, accusations firmly denied by Washington. U.S. program to fund and train Syrian rebels also suffered from lack of resources, miscalculations and a broken Washington system. Where on one hand CIA wanted to back anyone it can find who can fight Bashar-ul-Assad’s forces even if it meant funding and arming Al-Qaeda, the Department of Defense and Obama administration officials disagreed and opposed CIA as they wanted to support only the U.S.-vetted moderate groups. This bickering in DC eventually helped Russia to crush both CIA and Pentagon backed rebel groups. United States has also been fighting Islamic State in Syria under Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF–OIR), an alliance against Islamic State in Syria and Levant of more than 30 countries. The CJTF-OIR is fighting ISIS by engaging in targeted airstrikes as well as supporting some Kurdish and Arab groups on the ground. These groups include YPG, YPJ, Jaysh al-Thuwar (JaT), Syriac Military Council (MFS) and International Freedom Battalion (IFB). The apparent goals of United States in Syria include fighting Islamic State and removing Assad preferably through a peaceful process which includes Syrian Opposition.
Russia has historically enjoyed excellent relations with Syria and was invited into the Syrian conflict by the Syrian dictator Assad himself. Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean for its Black Fleet is located in the port of Tartus, Syria. In 2011 and 2012 Moscow used its veto-power in the United Nations Security Council against resolutions promoted by Western and Arab countries to prevent possible sanctions or military intervention against the Assad regime, and Moscow continued to supply large amounts of arms that Syria had earlier contracted to buy. On 30 September 2015, Russia started its direct military intervention in the Syrian to aid the Assad regime, which was about to collapse at that time, consisting of air strikes against militant groups opposed to the government. Russia maintains active intelligence sharing link with the Bashar-ul-Assad’s regime and Russian military advisers have been advising Syrian Army. Russia’s goals in Syria include defending the Assad regime and making sure that it does not fall to Al-Qaeda or Islamic State, protect Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean, fight Islamic State (which Russian President Putin has publicly accused of being funded and supported by Western allies) and cut back U.S. influence in the Middle East.
Iran, like Russia, is a key ally of Syria’s Bashar-ul-Assad regime and has been called Syria’s closest ally. Iran, like Russia, wants to make sure that Assad regime stays and for that purpose Iran has consistently supported Assad regime in a strategy designed to increase Iranian influence and cut back Saudi/Sunni influence. In 2011 Iran was reported to be helping the Syrian regime crackdown on protesters, which was the point when peaceful Syrian protesters turned violent and resorted to militancy against the regime. Iran’s IRGC shares intelligence with the Syrian military, provides technical and personnel support and also allows its advisers to help the Syrian military develop military strategies to counter West and Arab backed rebels groups as well as Islamic State. In 2011 the news was leaked to the media by Western intelligence agencies that Iran has agreed to fund a new multi-million-dollar military base on the Syrian coast to make it easier to ship weapons and other military hardware between the two countries. Indeed, Iran has been consistently supplying Assad regime with weapons via Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon, which is in violation of UN arms embargo on Iran. Iran has also used commercial planes to smuggle weapons into Syria. Iran has also been sending IRGC fighters and officers into Syria to aid the Syrian military. Several Iranian military fighters and officers have been killed in Syria.
In a rare public comment about Iran-Syria military ties, Gen. Ahmad Reza Pourdastan, commander of Iran’s regular Army ground forces, said the Islamic Republic of Iran is prepared to provide military training to the Syrian Army. “As a Muslim nation, we back Syria, and if there is need for training we will provide them with the training.”
Iran also uses Syria as a counter-weight to Israel and by extension United States. Iranian Foreign Policy Advisor Ali Akbar Velayati once declared about Syria regime, “Iran is not prepared to lose this golden counterweight [to Israel].” Iran also funds, arms and trains different militias which are fighting against Islamic State as well as Arab-backed rebel groups. These militias include Al-Abbas Brigade, Fatimiyoun Brigade and the Zainabiyoun Brigade, which mainly consists of Pakistani Shi’ite Jihadis fighting for Iran. The primary recruiters, financers, and handlers for the Pakistani fighters in Syria are the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Al-Quds Force. Apart from these brigades, Iran has also helped raise a strong military presence of Hezbollah, the Lebanese pro-Iran anti-Israel Shi’ite militia. Hezbollah’s presence is so strong in Syria that many experts have said that among all the parties involved in Syria, it is Hezbollah that is winning. Hezbollah’s presence near the Israel-Syria border has worried Israeli military experts who fear that Hezbollah may use a two-front strategy against Israel in the next war, which could be nearer than most experts think. Indeed, Syrian officials have said that in case of a Hezbollah vs Israel war, Syria will support Hezbollah. Syrian regime itself has been providing arms to Hezbollah, which has rung alarm bells in Tel Aviv. Besides propping up Assad regime, countering U.S. and Saudi influence and fighting Islamic State, Iran’s goals in Syria also include using Syria as a second front against Israel.
Israel, for now, has largely stayed away from active military intervention in Syria to oust Assad even though it shares this goal of U.S. and Arab countries. Instead, Israel’s efforts have focused on medically treated Syrian civilians as well as rebels fighters seeking help in Israeli hospitals. Israel has treated over 2000 injured Syrians in Israeli hospitals since the start of Syria war. Apart from medically treating Syrians, Israeli action in Syria has sometimes included targeted airstrikes on Hezbollah sites, weapon shipments to Hezbollah and Assad regime facilities linked with Hezbollah. There is fear in Israel that involvement and winning position of Hezbollah in Syria war will embolden the militia to seek a war with Israel. Israel’s official position in the Syria war is neutrality.
Where Does Pakistan Stand?
Pakistan has largely stayed neutral in the Syria conflict so far but it will need to devise an effective foreign policy strategy to play its role since Pakistan shares border with Iran, a party in Syria conflict, and Pakistan is also leading the IMAFT, which is meant to fight against terrorism which may include Syria-linked terrorism spilling outside. Islamic State also has presence in Syria and more recently in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, which should also compel Pakistan to reevaluate its policy on Syria. Pakistan will have to balance its policy on Syria delicately between trying not to alienate either side: the backers of Assad regime and the backers of Syrian rebels. Pakistan has good relations with Saudi, Qatar and other Arab states and wouldn’t want to harm them. Yet Pakistan now also has good relations with Russia, which is proving to be a possibly crucial ally of Pakistan in Afghanistan war theater. Yet some Middle East commentators have also claimed that Pakistan’s Syria policy tilts towards Assad regime and its backers Russia, Iran. This may be because Pakistan has opposed regime change in Syria via military intervention. But in Pakistan’s defense, this stance of Pakistan is in accordance of UN and international law. Pakistan also points out that the Assad regime is recognized by the UN and therefore it is not realistic for Pakistan to reject it and support regime change. Indeed, the popular narrative in Pakistan has been mixed where commentators and officials in Islamabad largely blame foreign powers, and United States in particular, for the Syrian quagmire. Yet some argue that Pakistan’s position is morally wrong since Assad has engaged in mass-slaughter of his own people and he is not backed by United States but Russia.
In terms of counter-terrorism and security, Pakistan will also need to create a national deradicalization program and educational programs to help aid Pakistan in the fallout of the proxy war in Syria, which is bound to create ripple effects in Pakistan’s ideological narrative. Average Pakistanis will have a hard time following who is supporting who in Syria and why and it will be hard to explain all the clashing interests in Syria. Since Pakistan is an ideological state, it needs not only to come up with a counter-narrative not only against ISIS but also to explain to its public why Muslims have been fighting against Muslims in Syria. This is the job of the state as well as country’s academics, scholars, religious leaders and political pundits. Sunni and Shi’ite fighters returning from Syria, after serving their sentence, should be put through a deradicalization program for 6-12 months before they can be allowed back into the society. Some countries have adopted the policy of revoking citizenship of citizens who went to fight in Syria for any group, especially Islamic State. Which policy to adopt is up to the Pakistani state but in any case a national deradicalization program is much needed.
For now Pakistan has stayed away from picking obvious sides in Syria conflict as it is not a party to the conflict and has its own problems to take care of but if the conflict in Syria escalates into a full-blown international conflict, Pakistan won’t be able to afford to ignore Syria anymore. Pakistan needs to start preparing for that inevitable time.