Beneath what seemed like a beautiful gesture of humanitarian aid, a dark statement from a Syrian Minister raises questions of Pakistan’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. These recent statements compound previous statements of support an Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan as well as the recent warming relations between the two nations.
On Sunday the Government of Pakistan delivered medical aid through the ‘National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA)’ in light of Syria’s failing fight against Coronavirus. 250,000 masks along with thousands of medical personal protective equipment, medication and medical equipment were sent from Pakistan to Syria.
Hidden in the news was a problematic statement from the Syrian Deputy Foreign and Expatriates Minister, Dr. Faisal Mikdad. He thanked Pakistan for supporting Syria “not only in difficult health conditions but in joint action against terrorism”. Bashar al-Assad has long maintained that the people fighting against him in the Syrian civil war are all terrorists.
It is unclear what Mikdad was referring to as “joint action against terrorism” since Pakistan has not been involved in the conflict. Thousands of Pakistani Shi’ite fighters poured into Syria with the help of Iran to help Bashar al-Assad after the conflict began. It has been reported that Iran recruited and trained Pakistani Shi’ite militants keeping their families in Pakistan on a monthly stipend. Just one of the Shi’ite militias, the Zainab Brigade even now boasts over 800 Pakistani fighters, the actual number speculated to be significantly higher.
As the curtain begins to fall on the Syrian conflict, time will tell to what extent Pakistani fighters helped Assad stay in power. For now, the statement of the Syrian Minister Mikdad implies this was significant enough to worthy thanks.
Rebuilding a Strained Relationship
The Syrian civil war started when the Pakistan ruled by the Shi’ite leader Asif Ali Zardari. He aligned Pakistan in defence of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Speaking to Mikdad, the same Minister mentioned above, Zardari opposed foreign interference in the conflict.
In 2014, the then Sunni Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif backed Saudi Arabia’s plans for an interim governing body to replace Bashar al-Assad and transition towards peace. By 2015 the pressure had mounted on Sharif and his Foreign Secretary said Pakistan is against any attempt to topple Bashar al-Assad.
In January 2018 Turkey’s Yunus Emre Institute co-organised an event with the University of Punjab holding a prayer for Turkish victory against the PYD/PKK and ISIS in North-western Syria. The student event strained relations with Syria, with Assad-supporting columnists claiming Pakistan had acted negatively towards Assad under the Nawaz Sharif Government.
Towards the end of 2018 in an interview Pakistan’s, then new, Prime Minister Imran Khan urged western and Arab governments to reopen their embassies in Damascus and recognise the Bashar al-Assad government. Sworn in as Prime Minister in January 2018, Khan sent an ambassador to Syria in April 2018.
This lauded Khan praise from Syria and earned him warming relations with the Assad regime. His initial influence over the Arab world may have meant his words were heeded by the Arab states, with the UAE and Bahrain opening embassies in Syria in December 2018. The latest steps, however are seen as Prime Minister Khan’s firm support of an Assad regime.
Pakistan has the world’s second largest Shi’ite population meaning sentiments in some parts of the Pakistani population are warm towards the Shi’ite regime of Bashar al-Assad. This places any leader of Pakistan in a difficult position, perhaps this is why Imran Khan has also repeatedly called on the US to drop sanctions against Iran, and urged for the resumption of dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran.