Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Daily Times Editorial April 1, 2015
Double track Pakistan seems to be caught in a cleft stick. On the one hand, given our public posture of being beholden to Saudi Arabia for its help over the years, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s ringing declarations of support to the Kingdom are understandable. However, this is only one face of the Pakistani dilemma. On the other side is neighbour Iran which, although it has denied supporting the Houthi rebels in Yemen (a position endorsed by the Pakistan foreign office, whose spokesperson says there is no proof of Iranian involvement), is widely accused of being behind the rebellions’ major advances in recent days. Pakistan does not want to insert itself into what is perceived as a proxy sectarian war in Yemen between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Pakistan’s interests are obviously best served by maintaining friendly ties with both countries. That is why Pakistan is now turning to the UN, OIC and the international community to find a political solution to the Yemen war that would let Pakistan off the hook of committing troops to the Yemen war in support of the Saudi-led Sunni Arab coalition. Whether such multilateral diplomacy can yield any results seems difficult given that the OIC is toothless, the UN prevaricating, and the so-called international community wondering whether the US’s support for Saudi intervention is something they want to go along with. Meanwhile events on the ground in Yemen are rapidly escalating along with the bloodshed. While the Saudi-led air strikes have taken out missile systems and blunted the pell mell advance of the rebels, the military logic suggests and reports confirm Saudi preparations for a land offensive into Yemen. This then is a sensitive and critical time for the high level Pakistani delegation to be visiting Saudi Arabia for discussions. The Pakistani decision makers will perhaps be clearer about their chosen path once the delegation returns and briefs them about the situation. The Pakistani authorities have shown unusual alacrity in mounting an evacuation of Pakistanis caught up in the fighting in Yemen. One flight carrying almost 500 stranded Pakistanis has arrived back safely, but one cannot be sanguine about the fate of the rest of our countrymen still there. Aden is threatened by the Houthi advance, so escape overland to Mokallah and then by air to Pakistan has become precarious. Evacuation by sea is being contemplated, with the foreign office revealing that two naval vessels have been dispatched for the purpose as well as feelers sent out to China, which already has naval ships in the area, to help with the evacuation of the remaining trapped Pakistanis. The tragedies of such a war are familiar tales. Around 40 people have been killed and 200 injured by airstrikes near a displaced persons camp at Haradh in northern Yemen. Exiled president Hadi blames Houthi artillery for the collateral damage. Saudi Arabia has no comment. Threatened Aden has also seen for the first time Egyptian warships in action to stave off the Houthi juggernaut. Most interestingly, the real aim of the Saudi intervention is revealed in a cabinet statement that says the Kingdom is open to a meeting of all Yemeni parties to preserve the country’s security under the aegis of the Gulf Cooperation Council. One wonders then whether such a robust military intervention really was necessary if all Saudi Arabia wanted in the end was a political-diplomatic solution. Did Riyadh even attempt such a move? There is no evidence to that effect. The flexing of Saudi military muscle in the region of late, starting with the intervention in Bahrain and now Yemen, points to the dual role Riyadh appears to be acquiring of policeman for the Arab world in defence of Sunni power against Iranian-Shia encroachment. This may sound acceptable now that Saudi Arabia has the military bite to match its bark, but the whirling eddies of spreading sectarian conflict throughout the Muslim world it may set off would be a replay five centuries later of the sectarian wars that tore Europe apart. That extended conflict ended with secularism separating church from state. Whether the Muslim world can achieve a similar outcome, which logically seems the only way to prevent a dangerous and bloody sectarian conflict from spinning out of control, is still an open question. For Pakistan, we reiterate, the best course is to be patient, diplomatic, and keep its powder dry while staying away from an extremely dangerous entanglement that looms.