“Pakistan is a part of the Saudi-led counter-terror alliance,” Foreign Affairs advisor Sartaj Aziz said on January 12, during an in-camera briefing to Foreign Affairs Committee in Islamabad. But he was quick to clarify that Pakistan won’t be sending its army to Saudi Arabia. Last month, Saudi Arabia had announced a 34-state Islamic coalition against the terrorist group that calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
On January 10, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif assured Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Muhammad Bin Salman of Pakistan’s support if there was a threat to the kingdom’s “territorial integrity.” The prince had heard similar words from Army chief Gen Raheel Sharif in the afternoon.
Prince Salman’s visit to Pakistan came three days after Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir visited Islamabad to discuss Riyadh’s tensions with Tehran, and the counter-terror coalition. Government insiders say both the visitors urged Islamabad to join Riyadh to take ‘more action’ against Tehran, following the recent confrontation.
Sectarian tension had flared after Saudi Arabia executed 47 ‘terrorism convicts’ on January 2. These included 43 ‘Al Qaeda affiliated jihadis’ and four Shia convicts. Renowned Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who had led a pro-democracy movement from the kingdom’s eastern province, was among those executed.
“Nimr had been vocal for a while, but did not expect to be treated this way,” says Shahab Jafry, the associate editor and former Middle East correspondent at Pakistan Today. “There are Sunni preachers aplenty in Iran, quite literally Nimr’s opposite numbers of sorts, but they haven’t figured in the hundreds of executions there.”
The move comes after active Saudi influence in Syria, where its proxies are battling Iranian proxies (like Hezbollah) who, are also battling ISIS on the ground. “Connect the dots and you’ll see a clear message in Nimr’s beheading,” says Mr Jafry.
“Why does the alliance exclude forces already battling ISIS?”
Soon after the execution, protests broke out in Iran, and Saudi embassies were torched. Saudi Arabia expelled the Iranian ambassador over the incident, and Bahrain and Sudan did the same. The UAE also reduced diplomatic ties with Iran. Sectarian tensions were very obvious by the time al-Jubeir visited Islamabad on January 7.
“Pakistan is resisting a military involvement in the conflict, because of our domestic counter-terror fight,” a government official said. “The Pathankot attack has also divided Pakistan’s focus, with a lot of diplomatic energy being invested in ensuring that the NSA level talks with India go ahead.” The source said Pakistan would not be part of any action against Iran, but is on board in the fight against ISIS.
“Joining the coalition is the right decision,” says former diplomat Mansoor Alam, who was in charge of Arab Affairs at the Pakistani Foreign Ministry. “ISIS has penetrated Pakistani borders as well,” he says. “Pakistanis are fleeing to Syria and Iraq to fight with ISIS. It is a terrorist organisation and we need to fight against it collectively.”
But Pakistan needs to ensure that the coalition isn’t designed to take action against Iran, he warns.
“We need to reconfirm whether the purpose of the coalition actually is to counter terrorism,” says Akram Zaki, a senior Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader and former chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs. “Why aren’t all Muslim countries a part of the coalition? Is there a sectarian angle to it? We need to ask these questions and then define our role.”
He says Pakistan should be a part of any action against terrorism, “but we should be aware of any other goals of the coalition.”
The coalition may end up becoming a sectarian battalion, if the powers that be ‘unnecessarily twist things’, Mansoor Alam says. “We can’t sit here and decide what the realities are, but this coalition should not be given a sectarian colour. Having said that, Pakistan surely needs to fight against the likes of ISIS, Al Qaeda and Jaish-e-Muhammad.”
Shahab Jafry believes that any sectarian warfare will create more space for ISIS to exploit in the Middle East.
“War and uncertainty naturally create a vacuum,” he says. “The more important question is: did someone deliberately feed this chaos to create a vacuum that their proxy IS could exploit? Someone has been funding and arming the ‘caliphate’ since before it became a ‘caliphate’.”
While Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah categorically denies the presence of ISIS in Pakistan, he has said that over 100 people from Punjab have fled the country to fight for ISIS in Syria and Iraq. “Pakistani security agencies are working really hard to curb this disease,” Sanaullah says. “We will not let it spread in Punjab or Pakistan.”
Mansoor Alam believes that the very fact that ISIS is taking responsibility for attacks in Pakistan and that Pakistanis are pledging allegiance to ISIS, means that the terror group is no longer a ‘foreign issue’.
“ISIS was supposed to be Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – I don’t know how it reached Pakistan,” says Akram Zaki. “It seems like the previous Taliban factions have started calling themselves ISIS because they are looking for a new leader after Mullah Omar.”
He reiterates that Pakistan should focus on internal security instead of getting involved in global conflicts. “Pakistan has the world’s second largest Shia population, and we need to make sure that peace and stability is maintained domestically.”
But Mansoor Alam says Pakistan can’t just say no to Saudi Arabia. “There are thousands of Pakistanis employed in Saudi Arabia,” he asserts. “Considering Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia, involvement in the Middle East is inevitable. Now it is the diplomatic prowess of Islamabad that will determine whether Pakistan can actually play a mediating role in the Saudi-Iran crisis, while fighting the much needed war against ISIS.”
Shahab Jafry believes Pakistan should route the diplomatic solution through the Parliament. “In addition to educating Pakistanis, such exercises can help clarify the international picture as well. If the coalition is indeed designed to counter ISIS, why does it not include the forces already battling the ISIS – Syria, Iran, Iraq and Lebanese militia Hezbollah?”
“Islamabad should also remember that this is a time of great international reorientation with regard to the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia,” says Jafry. “The Americans have toned down their partnership considerably. The Arab press also spoke of a dossier of Saudi involvement in the Syrian civil war that the Americans presented to Riyadh ahead of Obama’s visit last year. Pakistan must weigh its options carefully.”
According to Akram Zaki, Pakistan should play the role of a unifier.
“Pakistan needs to join the likes of Indonesia and Malaysia to help ease the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Islamabad won’t be able to do it on its own,” he says. “Trying to do it all alone would be riskier as well. Malaysia and Indonesia aren’t historically close allies for Pakistan, but if we want to strengthen our stance of Muslim unity, Islamabad needs to align itself with states that can help eradicate the divide in the Muslim world, not the ones that create it.”