The Saudis and the Arab states want to build a Sunni resistance to what they perceive as Shia hegemony to their north. In doing so, they are ready to make a deal with Israel
Now, more than ever, the world seems to be hurtling towards a third world war. The partisans of the Syrian dispute seem to be utterly incapable of coming to a compromise on how to end the civil war there and how to deal with the menace of the so-called Islamic State (IS). A Saudi prince has inadvertently revealed his country’s plans by saying that Saudis should support Israel against a Palestinian uprising. Meanwhile, tensions on Europe’s edge, the Ukraine-Russian border, continue to fester. At the same time, things are coming to an impasse in the South China Sea, with provocations from both China and the US. China insists on reclaiming land in that region and the US as the Law of the Sea, which it has not itself signed, applies there. Last week, a US destroyer came within 12 miles of an island upon which China claims sovereignty. The Pacific saw similar provocations when Russian Tu-160 bombers paid US aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan a visit.
First Syria. The Syrian great game seems to be getting convoluted by the day. The US and its Arab allies insist that Bashar ul Assad must not be part of the solution. Russia and Iran insist that he must be. Russia has been bombing IS and anti-Assad forces in Syria. The US, on the other hand, wants to arm the so-called ‘moderate’ opposition forces (including al Qaeda) against both IS and the Assad regime, and has now committed its special forces on the ground. In Ukraine, Russian backed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk are engaged in a deadly conflict that has claimed thousands of lives. NATO accuses Russia of having gotten involved in Syria precisely to avert attention from its invasions of Crimea and Donbas. Here is where the Russian campaign in Syria connects with the events in Ukraine and Europe at large. Putin needs ports and airfields in the Eastern Mediterranean in order to project into Europe and Assad is his best bet in that region. It is Putin who has literally dictated the US’ newfound resolve in engaging troops in Syria. Russian MIG 29s and SU-30Ms have already had one confrontation too many with Turkey’s F-16s where Turkey is a NATO member state. However, Turkey faces its own challenges vis-à-vis US involvement in Syria and Iraq. The US is actively supporting the Kurds in these countries to bolster opposition against IS. Turkey on the other hand has declared war against both IS and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) within its borders.
Then there is the brewing Shia-Sunni conflict in the greater Middle East, which is being used for all the wrong reasons. Iran sides with the Assad regime because of its ties with Shia Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran and the Assad regime are staunch allies against Israel. Saudi Arabia supports the so-called moderate opposition in Syria precisely for the same reason. The Saudis and the Arab states want to build a Sunni resistance to what they perceive as Shia hegemony to their north. In doing so, they are ready — as became abundantly clear with Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal’s statement (though he seems to have recanted and issued a denial since) — to make a deal with Israel. Together with Israel, the UAE and their lobbyists and supporters in Washington DC, the Saudis will attempt to open a diplomatic front against Iran in the US capital. The idea would be to press the US to take a more hardline stance against the Islamic republic only months after the Iran deal.
This is where geography exacts its revenge on would be players of international power politics. The US’ actions in the South China Sea, referred to above, indicate that it is worried about increasing Chinese projection of power in Asia. This makes the Gwadar Port a source for further concern given that the Chinese military would have a port in the Arabian Sea as a result. The alternative is the Iranian Chabahar Port. Hence, India is being pressed by the US to invest there. Iranian attempts to woo Chinese investment in the port have likely raised alarm bells in Washington DC. Pakistan’s declaration that Gwadar and Chabahar would be sister port cities came just at the right time. Pak-Iranian cooperation may just be the one bright spot that will help this region evade the disaster that is emerging elsewhere.
Recently, Russia has also made overtures to Pakistan and has agreed to sell MI-35 helicopters. Russia and China are also on the same page vis-à-vis India’s attempt to get a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC); they wish to block it. This obviously plays to Pakistan’s interest in deepening its ties with Russia. Pakistan, which is officially an ally of both the US and China, cannot afford to be seen as taking sides with either party in the broader global conflict. Furthermore, as a country with a mixed Sunni-Shia population, Pakistan must actively work with both sides of the Syrian conflict to forge a united front against IS.
Similarly, in Afghanistan, Pakistan must work closely not only with the US but also with Russia. It is time to bury old doctrines from the Cold War era and evolve a new doctrine that furthers Pakistan’s long-term interests in the region. This new doctrine must identify Pakistan as the most important bridge builder, between the US and China/Russia duo as well as between Saudi Arabia and Iran, working in the interest of world peace. In doing so, it must also actively apprise the world of the threat that the rise of aggressive Hindu fundamentalism in India poses to the world and how Pakistan stands as a bulwark against it. The sad truth is that India will not talk to Pakistan so long as Pakistan remains weak. This much has become very clear in the past one year. However, India under Modi’s fundamentalist regime has presented Pakistan with an opportunity it must grab with both hands before a wider global conflict blurs the lines between allies and enemies.
The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore and the author of the book Mr Jinnah: Myth and Reality. He can be contacted via twitter @therealylh and through his email address email@example.com