Recent diplomacy between Riyadh and Islamabad reminds me of delinquents daring a hornet’s nest. Iran spared no moment to threaten Pakistan with a military raid while Russia was curt to caution Pakistan about meddling in Syria. Deep in trouble itself and grappling to fight insecurities created through non-state actors, how could Pakistan even think of becoming part of a dangerous game that failed three decades ago?

Pakistan has a historical propensity to nibble its space in big power rivalry, while its economic short cuts could make the temptation too lucrative to resist. But Pakistani policy planners need to realise that in the final analysis, the transition from an Afghan Jihad against godless communism to a liberation struggle of enlightened moderates in Syria is the name of the same game. The policy failed in Afghanistan and Indian Occupied Kashmir. It will fail in Syria but not before unleashing a new genre of non-state actors. As Benjamin Franklin said, ‘Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.’ Pakistan has remained a loser for the past three decades and must resist the forbidden fruit offered by a kingdom fast losing its credibility.

Saudi policy to reshape the Middle East after toppling Morsi in Egypt lost its steam in Syria because Putin intervened. However, the Saudis are convinced that success was just around the corner had President Obama not blinked first. Disillusioned by the lack of US support and its thaw with Iran, the kingdom began contemplating its own shadow war. It toyed with the idea of enlisting Pakistan to train and arm Syrian rebels on the pattern of Afghan cooperation. However, it was forced to abandon the plan after the USA confronted it with incriminating information over terrorism. Still, old habits die hard. With slight modifications, Saudi Arabia is now advocating a sugar coated alternative laden with the same intentions. Eager, Saudi Arabia donned a soft face by sacking its terrorism czar and issuing an unprecedented royal decree that condemned terrorism. The effect was immediate. It ended reluctance on the part of President Obama to visit Saudi Arabia in March this year when this new idea backed by the French Civil-Military Complex could be endorsed or rejected.

Saudi Arabia does not wish to lose its position as a hegemon in the region where Iran is fast asserting its presence. The house of Saud will spare no effort to sell its win-win proposal with a moderate make-up. The plan seeks to soothe American nerves, appeases Israel and checkmates the Russo-Iranian influence. With triple objectives of containing Islamic extremism (Al Qaeda and its shadows, a paradigm shift but led still, by the Salafis), brining some relief to Palestine and the collapse of the current Syrian regime (read end of Russo-Iranian Influence), Saudi Arabia feels the act can be pulled off with the assistance of Pakistan, Jordon and France. Of course, the dirtiest role has been assigned to Pakistan. We are required to supply weapons and train moderate (read Salafi) militants against Syria, wielding a poor man’s stinger Anza. The wish list also includes renting over 30,000 Pakistani troops to address Saudi internal and external insecurities and pose a structural threat to Iran. The plan reflects Saudi callousness and insensitivity to the security of other countries; its the money that makes the mare go.

For over a year, Saudi Arabia had become an irritant for most countries involved in the Syrian conflict. It was officially and privately accused of sponsoring terrorism. Though Pakistan never raised the issue, whispers suggested that many militant groups in Pakistan had Saudi and Middle Eastern ideological and monetary support. The DNA is more than visible. To impose caution, USA confronted Saudi Arabia with a highly classified dossier of terrorist activities. Somehow the most incriminating and irrefutable contents got leaked showing Saudi terrorist foot prints in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Pakistan and Russia. The dossier is now known to Russia, China and Iran who could embarrass USA and France for supporting Saudi Arabia as sponsor of global terrorism at the UN Security Council. Saudi Arabia immediately embarked on the business of salvage.

Saudi Arabia plans to replace extremist jihadists with a moderate force of Salafi rebels who incrementally bring President Bashar Assad to his knees. In contrition for fermenting terrorism, a royal decree condemned Islamic Jihadist with known linkages to Al Qaeda (similar to US objectives of eliminating Al Qaeda). In addition, Saud Arabia disowned thousands of Saudi soldiers it pumped into Syria and Iraq. They have been told that to avoid execution back home, they are better off  continuing their mission till death or to disperse to other fighting areas (Pakistan and Afghanistan). Pakistan’s geographical position will be used to checkmate Iran (Shia) and Russian influence in Afghanistan. To affirm that old habits are dead, Saudi Arabia has sent its terrorism guru Prince Bandar Bin Sultan on forced leave to the USA. The new chief Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, perfectly fits the American eye.

Fouad al-Ibrahim a reputed Middle East commentator for Al Akhbar presents a chilling assessment shared by many other analysts. “Saudi Arabia had mastered a double game. In public, it expressed a contrived strictness about the participation of Saudis in fighting abroad or collecting donations for al-Qaeda and its old and new subsidiaries. But in secret, money, men, and weapons were flooding the battlefields without any control.” He goes on to write, “Observers have gathered overwhelming evidence about the complicity of Saudi political, media, and religious institutions in the emigration of thousands of Saudis… prohibited from traveling abroad, except by special orders of the military leadership.” Some of them will find their way into Pakistan.

Saudi planners hope that the USA will buy the Saudi idea in return for Kerry’s Palestinian proposal. The proposal seeks the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state in return for a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Israel on its part has made clear that it will adjust its policies according to the larger US plan in the region, while Mahmood Abbas wants Saudi consent before he endorses. All this will come under discussion when President Obama visits Saudi Arabia in March.

Following the flurry of Saudi diplomacy, Pakistan has revised its position on Syria implying its willingness to be a minion and mercenary in exchange for riyals. Given the strong connections with the present government, Saudis could bankroll an intense counter terrorism operation in Pakistan to help subsequently release troops and efforts for the Saudi game in Syria. Alternatively, Pakistan could slow down its operations (particularly Haqqani Group) and leave redressing its vulnerabilities for another day. In both cases it will directly affect Pakistan’s operations against militancy and invite more foreign interference. With a fast forming Russian, Chinese and Iranian nexus, Pakistan runs the risk of being regionally isolated and smitten.

The writer is a retired officer of Pakistan Army and a political economist and a television anchorperson.