US foreign policy in the Greater Middle East Region (GMER) is stagnating and still short of achieving its major objectives, particularly in Syria and Iran. On the contrary, Russia’s emergence as a major proactive player in the GMER is noteworthy; its policies and positive interventions on the side of Syria and Iran have already impacted upon the regional power matrix substantially. It has apparently got the better of the US where Syria and Iran (and now Ukraine-Crimea) are concerned.
Consequent to their disastrous Afghan Campaign, the US and its allies are now displaying weak political will to back up their foreign policy initiatives with strong and decisive military power.
Russia’s Putin is thus striking and making the right strategic moves at the right point in time.
The US drive to enforce a regime change in Syria has faltered badly and the military threat to take out Iran’s nuclear program has almost vanished; much to the chagrin, heightened sense of nervousness and insecurity of Saudi Arabia (KSA), its GCC comrades and even Israel.
US policy towards the GMER also seems to be undergoing a very subtle yet perceptible shift. Unlike the past, it is acquiring a balance between KSA and Iran (converging interests in Afghanistan)- yet, without prejudice to Israel’s dominance. Consequently, to achieve strategic balance, KSA along with its GCC comrades is now forging new alliances and reinforcing existing, informal ones.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are now leading the drive to forge new alignments in the region. This has caused a very perceptible paradigm shift in the region, ushering in a new geopolitical order. The political mosaic of the region appears to be fracturing along sectarian - specifically Sunni and Shiite - lines. The eastern side of the Persian Gulf has Shiite majority countries of Iran and Iraq. On the western side, we have Sunni majority Arab Kingdoms though Bahrain has a Shiite majority but Sunni rulers. The Iran-Syria nexus continues in parallel.
The Persian Gulf appears to be dividing the region on sectarian lines.
And Pakistan has, it seems, been beckoned and lured (with US$ 1.5 Billion), to pick one side in this emerging contest. KSA and its allies expect to find Pakistan in their corner.
Can Pakistan afford to comply? Can Pakistan afford not to do so?
It is imperative for these powers to get Pakistan on their side. Not only is Pakistan the only Muslim nuclear power, but it is also the only one in the region that can provide them with the type of security forces and defense equipment they require for their survival as nations and the perpetuation of their ruling elites.
Pakistan has always had excellent relations with all Arab countries of the GCC as well as Iran. With Syria it has had historically good relations. Can we afford to take sides?
There are many factors that must be considered before committing to either side or deciding to remain neutral.
Most importantly, Pakistan must consider the traditions and the composition of its own armed forces. They have always maintained a system based on merit and professional competencies. Religious and sectarian affiliations have never merited considerations for any reason whatsoever. This tradition must never be compromised on.
Pakistan’s armed forces can ill-afford to allow sectarian identities to emerge within its ranks. This would invariably happen if our troops were to be employed in the GMER in an emerging “sectarian” geopolitical environment. It would be even more disastrous for the homogeneity and unity of the armed forces if troops of only one particular sect were selected/not selected for such duties abroad. Shoving the armed forces into a blatant sectarian struggle between other countries in the region is a sure recipe for disaster both abroad and at home. It goes stridently against national interests; national and personal debts of yore notwithstanding.
Then, keeping in view the war on terror and the internal and external threat perceptions, can Pakistan afford to release any number of troops for such duties abroad? Further, the egress of the US/NATO/ISAF from Afghanistan is going to usher in, it is safe to assume, a new wave of terror and a further deluge of refugees across the Durand Line. At this point in time can Pakistan really detach a reasonable number of troops for foreign expeditions?
Furthermore, we have traditional, cultural, linguistic, economic, social and religious ties with Iran. Can these relations be so easily disfavoured and ties broken, due to the sum of money received?
A very serious issue will be the US view of this Pakistani policy initiative. Will it run afoul of the US and its policy objectives there? Will it pressurize Pakistan to disregard Saudi, Kuwaiti and Bahraini requests a la Iran-Pakistan Gas Pipeline? And does Pakistan have any space or need to actually play any meaningful role in this emerging sectarian imbroglio?
We are already suffering the results of the proxy wars of these two belligerents, that is KSA and Iran on our soil. Will Pakistan picking a side not further vitiate the domestic environment and create domestic upheavals and mayhem?
Where exactly do Pakistan’s national interests lie then? Do they lie in Pakistan picking a side or in remaining neutral? History tells us that KSA has been more than forthcoming in our times of need. Should we then consider this payback time? Is this the only form in which we can compensate for our moral and financial debts to KSA?
This is a big challenge for our foreign policy experts. Pakistan needs to follow a policy whereby it secures sectarian harmony at home, insulates its armed forces from unnecessary pressures abroad and meets its obligations to KSA and other Arab countries without antagonizing Iran.
Pakistan needs to look this gift horse in the mouth; deep and steep. It is unacceptable that our foreign policy acquire a sectarian dimension. That would be disastrous, and possibly fatal for the country.
The author is a retired Brigadier, a former Defense Attache’ to Australia and New Zealand and is currently on the faculty of NUST (NIPCONS).