Pakistan may be preparing to assist Saudi Arabian backed rebel groups in Syria (Source: FreedomHouse)

Pakistan may be preparing to assist Saudi Arabian backed rebel groups in Syria (Source: FreedomHouse)

On February 18th, Saudi crown prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud visited Pakistan and, apparently, succeeded in convincing his hosts to change their stance on the bloody Syrian civil war. In a joint statement, both sides demanded “the formation of a transitional governing body with full executive powers enabling it to take charge of the affairs of the country (Syria).”

The declaration, likely obtained as a result of lavish Saudi promises of aid, trade, and defense cooperation, underscores the close relationship that the government of Nawaz Sharif has with the Kingdom. Sharif, it must be remembered, spent a number of years in luxurious exile in the humid Saudi port city of Jeddah, after being ousted by his handpicked army chief Pervez Musharraf.

In October 2013, Yezid Sayigh, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, noted that the Saudis had previously requested Pakistani assistance in training rebel groups, in a potential reenactment of their clandestine association during the Afghan jihad of the 1980s. However, owing to the country’s own troubles at home with the Tehrik e Taliban (TTP), it is unclear how helpful Pakistan’s preoccupied armed forces can be. Ironically, the TTP itself has been accused of aiding Syrian rebels meaning both the state and the Taliban are, for once, on the same page.

Warming ties between Riyadh and Islamabad are complicated by Pakistan’s relationship with Iran, a supporter of the Syrian government of Bashar Al Assad and a rival to Saudi influence in the region. Iran recently threatened to invade Pakistan to secure the release of five border guards kidnapped from the restive Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan by Pakistan based militants. The event marks a dramatic deterioration of relations which had been relatively warm under the previous government in Islamabad.

After the Pakistani Senate voiced concern about the country’s ‘tilt’ on the Syrian issue, the prime minister’s advisor on foreign affairs and national security, Sartaj Aziz, denied any change in policy and reiterated that Pakistan remains neutral in the conflict.

It is, however, unclear how long Pakistan can maintain its passivity – it is in desperate need of Saudi Arabia’s largess to reinvigorate its stalled economy. As such, it is very possible that quiet, behind the scenes, cooperation will pick up, without public disclosure of any major changes in Pakistan’s posture toward Syria.

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