There’s growing evidence that the Obama administration is providing just enough aid to the rebels to sustain the war, but not enough to topple Assad.
Almost three years ago, the late Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Anthony Shadid sat down with Bashar al-Assad’s cousin and confidant Rami Makhlouf for an exclusive interview. The topic of conversation was Syria’s nascent uprising, which was then entering its third month. Makhlouf, a billionaire tycoon who had benefited tremendously from Syria’s economic pivot to crony capitalism, was a symbol of the excess and corruption that defined Assad’s Syria and was a prime target of much of the anger that had erupted onto the Syrian streets.
“When we suffer, we will not suffer alone,” Makhlouf warned Shadid, a thinly veiled threat to those inside and outside Syria who dared to stand up to the Syrian regime. The regime considered its crackdown on dissent “a fight to the end,” he continued.
Three months after Shadid’s interview with Makhlouf, President Obama declared that the “time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Despite similar proclamations from leaders across the Western world and countless predictions of its imminent demise since the start of the uprising, the Assad regime has survived. Three years later, it is clear Makhlouf wasn’t bluffing. Consistent with his early assessment, the regime has treated the conflict as a zero-sum game that could only be won through uncompromising military force. Far from collapsing, many analysts now believe the Syrian government has all the momentum in its fight against an increasingly divided opposition.
Today, the distressing consequences of Makhlouf’s “fight to the end” have come into sharp focus. The latest estimates place the violent death toll since the start of the uprising at around150,000. The destruction of the country’s healthcare system has led to thousands of additional preventable deaths. Dr. Annie Sparrow, a public health expert at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, estimates that the total death toll, including deaths due to lack of access to basic medical care, could exceed 300,000. A new report from Save the Children vividly illustrates the horrors unfolding daily. It documented cases of patients undergoing unnecessary amputation due to lack of necessary medical equipment, the death of newborn babies because of power outages at hospitals and even cases of metal bars being used to knock out patients as a substitute for scarce anesthetics. Moreover, the country’s vaccination program has collapsed, resulting in an outbreak of polio, a disease that had previously been eradicated in Syria. According to Save the Children, the country’s prewar vaccination rate of 91 percent dropped to 68 percent just one year into the conflict. It is undoubtedly much lower now.
A series of UN investigations have revealed that these alarming realities were the byproduct of the systematic targeting of healthcare personnel and infrastructure by Syrian government forces and the intentional prevention of medical aid from entering contested areas. “Medicines are routinely denied to those who need them, including tens of thousands of women, children, and elderly,” says the latest report, highlighting the lack of progress since a binding UN Security Council resolution demanding the free flow of aid passed two months ago. Another investigation, conducted late last year, concluded that “government forces deliberately target medical personnel to gain military advantage by depriving the opposition and those perceived to support them of medical assistance for injuries sustained.… The situation is so dire that the general populace often elects not to seek [medical] help for fear of arrest, detention, torture or death.” The investigators also found that “some anti-Government armed groups have attacked hospitals in certain areas.” Thus, it’s no wonder that three out of five Syrian hospitals have been damaged or destroyed, and that half of Syria’s doctors have reportedly fled the country.
Of course, doctors aren’t the only Syrians who have been forced from their homes. The most recent estimates are that 2.6 million Syrians have sought refuge in neighboring countries and an additional 6.5 million are internally displaced. Thus, nearly half of Syria’s citizens have been dispossessed of their homes. Last week, the UN’s World Food Programme announced it will becutting desperately needed food parcel deliveries in Syria by 20 percent because contributing nations aren’t fulfilling their financial obligations.
Despite the shocking scale of the humanitarian crisis, the prospect of a resolution to this conflict is now more remote than ever. Hopes for a political settlement, pushed forward by Russia and the United States, amount to little more than a fantasy at this point. The latest round of negotiations, the much-touted Geneva II conference, ended after Assad’s representativesrefused to even discuss the possibility of a transitional government. Moreover, the Syrian government arrested family members of the opposition delegation it was supposedly negotiating with in good faith. It was relatively clear from the beginning that these negotiations were destined to fail. The Syrian government, emboldened by its gains on the ground, believes that it is winning. It has refused to offer any tangible concessions since the beginning of the uprising, even in times when it was believed to be flailing. Why would it negotiate its own demise now, when it is brimming with confidence?
With the unyielding support of Iran and its regional ally, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, along with a steady flow of weapons and diplomatic cover at the UN from Russia, the Syrian government is on the brink of declaring victory. Preparations are under way for a sham election that will grant Assad another seven-year term as president. In the last of these so-called elections, a referendum held in 2007, Assad supposedly garnered 97 percent of the vote with a turnout of 95 percent. As the UN’s special envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, has suggested, this election will be the final nail in the coffin of any political solution to the conflict.
On the rebel front, it’s become increasingly clear that the opposition’s Western backers are no longer interested in toppling Assad, assuming they ever were. An exposé that ran on the front page of The New York Times this month described the cynically incremental support the United States is providing rebels on Syria’s southern front. Rebels who have received military aid through US-controlled supply lines in Jordan told the Times that “the Obama administration is giving just enough to keep the rebel cause alive, but not enough to actually help it win.” This isn’t exactly a revelation. In a column for The Washington Post last summer, Fareed Zakaria wrotethat by providing just enough support to keep Syria’s rebels fighting, but not nearly enough for them to topple Assad, Obama was playing a “Machiavellian rather than humanitarian game.” Syria expert Joshua Landis recently echoed this belief when he tweeted that the United States is playing “a mischievous role. It is supporting rebels but making sure they cannot win.”
A New York Times report last October on Obama’s decision to back down from the threat of force after the August chemical weapons attack sheds more light on the reasoning behind the administration’s stance on Syria. In this story, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough is described as the administration official whose views on Syria were most closely aligned with the president’s. During internal debates on the matter, McDonough reportedly “questioned how much it was in America’s interest to tamp down the violence in Syria.” He later suggested that “a fight in Syria between Hezbollah and al Qaeda would work to America’s advantage.”
President Obama’s answer to a question on Syria during a recent interview provides further insight into his calculus:
“I’m always darkly amused by this notion that somehow Iran has won in Syria. I mean, you hear sometimes people saying, ‘They’re winning in Syria.’ And you say, ‘This was their one friend in the Arab world, a member of the Arab League, and it is now in rubble.’ It’s bleeding them because they’re having to send in billions of dollars. Their key proxy, Hezbollah, which had a very comfortable and powerful perch in Lebanon, now finds itself attacked by Sunni extremists. This isn’t good for Iran. They’re losing as much as anybody. The Russians find their one friend in the region in rubble and delegitimized.”
The implication here is that the president of the United States could be seeking to intentionally prolong the war, despite the catastrophic scale of the death and destruction that is taking place as a result, because it is bad for Iran and Russia.
As the Syrian people mark the beginning of the fourth year of their tragedy, caught in the middle of an international chess match they no longer have power to influence, one thing is abundantly clear: Makhlouf was right—the regime did not suffer alone.
It is only a matter of time before the stock market plunges by 50% or more, according to several reputable experts.
“We have no right to be surprised by a severe and imminent stock market crash,” explains Mark Spitznagel, a hedge fund manager who is notorious for his hugely profitable billion-dollar bet on the 2008 crisis. “In fact, we must absolutely expect it."
Unfortunately Spitznagel isn’t alone.
“We are in a gigantic financial asset bubble,” warns Swiss adviser and fund manager Marc Faber. “It could burst any day.”
Faber doesn’t hesitate to put the blame squarely on President Obama’s big government policies and the Federal Reserve’s risky low-rate policies, which, he says, “penalize the income earners, the savers who save, your parents — why should your parents be forced to speculate in stocks and in real estate and everything under the sun?”
Billion-dollar investor Warren Buffett is rumored to be preparing for a crash as well. The “Warren Buffett Indicator,” also known as the “Total-Market-Cap to GDP Ratio,” is breaching sell-alert status and a collapse may happen at any moment.
So with an inevitable crash looming, what are Main Street investors to do?
One option is to sell all your stocks and stuff your money under the mattress, and another option is to risk everything and ride out the storm.
But according to Sean Hyman, founder of Absolute Profits, there is a third option.
“There are specific sectors of the market that are all but guaranteed to perform well during the next few months,” Hyman explains. “Getting out of stocks now could be costly.”
How can Hyman be so sure?
He has access to a secret Wall Street calendar that has beat the overall market by 250% since 1968. This calendar simply lists 19 investments (based on sectors of the market) and 38 dates to buy and sell them, and by doing so, one could turn $1,000 into as much as $300,000 in a 10-year time frame.
“But this calendar is just one part of my investment system,” Hyman adds. “I also have a Crash Alert System that is designed to warn investors before a major correction as well.”
(The Crash Alert System was actually programmed by one of the individuals who coded nuclear missile flight patterns during the Cold War so that it could be as close to 100% accurate as possible).
Hyman explains that if the market starts to plunge, the Crash Alert System will signal a sell alert warning investors to go to cash.
“You would have been able to completely avoid the 2000 and 2008 collapses if you were using this system based on our back-testing,” Hyman explains. “Imagine how much more money you would have if you had avoided those horrific sell-offs.”
One might think Sean is being too confident, but he has proven himself correct in front of millions of people time and time again.
In a 2012 interview on Bloomberg Television, Hyman correctly predicted that Best Buy would drop down to $11 a share and then it would rally back up to $40 a share over the next few months. The stock did exactly what Hyman predicted.
Then, during a Fox Business interview with Gerri Willis in early 2013, he forecast that the market would rally to new highs of 15,000 despite the massive sell-off that was haunting investors. The stock market almost immediately rebounded and hit Hyman’s targets.
“A lot of people think I am lucky,” Sean said. “But it has nothing to do with luck. It has everything to do with certain tools I use. Tools like the secret Wall Street calendar and my Crash Alert System.”
With more financial uncertainty that ever, thousands of people are flocking to Hyman for his guidance. He has over 114,000 subscribers to his monthly newsletter, and his investment videos have been seen millions of times.
In a recent video, Hyman not only reveals the secret Wall Street calendar, he also shows how his Crash Alert System works so that anybody can follow in his footsteps (click here to watch it now).
© 2014 Moneynews. All rights reserved.
Ten years ago it would have been a shocking to discover that an American company was spying on practically everyone in Britain. Now, it's totally accepted as the norm. In return for free web-based services, we've sleepwalked into waiving our right to privacy.
But is there any way we can opt out?
It’s not pleasant knowing that you are being watched all the time, but often we forget. It’s only occasionally we get that niggling creepy feeling when an ad is just a little too accurate. A classic example is that advertisers often know that a woman is pregnant before she tells her family, just by observing her web-browsing habits. Sometimes this goes even further – abortion providers have used similar targeting to find young women who might be looking for pregnancy advice.
Once I started looking into this, one thing that shocked me right away was just how much I was being tracked. Using a tool called Collusion, I was able to see how many companies were mining my data. In my case, 87 firms were keeping tabs on my every move. While the usual suspects – Facebook and Google – were there, I'd never heard of most of these firms.
There's an enormous ecosystem of companies that do nothing but sift your data, draw conclusions from it, and then sell it on. The way they do this is by comparing multiple data points. So, for example, if you visit the The Spectator, it suggests you are a well-educated, wealthy consumer. If you later browse online for nice men's leather walking boots, it confirms you may be wealthy, and like the outdoors. You're now one click onFarmer's Guardian away from being of value to people selling online tractor ads.
Of course, it's not an exact science – and it can lead to wildly different results across devices. For example, a friend of mine is a police officer who seizes criminal property. Her work desktop assumes she's a louche playboy because of all the yacht and sports car prices she googles, while her personal smartphone assumes she's a teenage girl because of all of the nail art sites she visits in her spare time.
However, the sheer volume of data collected means it's hard to spoof – and unless your results are regularly quite extreme, it will be fairly accurate. Equally, with location services able to see where you are, and web-based emails quite capable of reading the text of your messages, a concerted manual spoofing attempt would be time consuming and probably pointless.
You don't have to do it manually, though. Just as there's an ecosystem of ads, there's an ecosystem dedicated to delivering an untracked online experience. The untraceable web browser Tor is probably the most famous, but there are services that offer an untracked experience in all spheres.
Here’s a list of services you can use to hide your tracks online, from security firm Abine:
Internet Service Provider (ISP): SonicWireless provider: CricketEncrypt an email account you already have: Thunderbirdwith Enigmail, Mac Mail with GPGTools, Outlook withGPG4WinAndroid proxy: OrbotiOS proxy: FoxyProxy (configure it as a proxy, not a VPN)Mobile photos: ObscuraCamText messaging: TextSecureOnline tracker blocking: our very own DNTMeHard drive encryption: TrueCrypt
That list should give you pause – if you aren't using one of the untraceable services for that function, then your data is probably being sifted and sold by a mainstream provider. The drawback is that many of these services are fiddly to use and require a degree of tech savvy to set up properly. Without going to all that trouble, you can use blanket tools like DoNotTrackMe or Disconnect, but of course, they won’t prevent everything. They are probably the best tools to block tracking through your smartphone use.
So, it turns out you can beat Google – it just takes a bit of work.
Now that Malaysia Airlines flight 370 is confirmed lost in the southern Indian Ocean, focus is turning to the retrieval of the flight's "black box".
The US has sent a black box locator to the search area, with less than two weeks to go until these crucial pieces of equipment stop transmitting.
Here are some things you might not know about black boxes:
1. They're not black
Black boxes are the same colour as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco ... kind of. They are a tone of what's known as international orange, which is a set of three colours used in aerospace and engineering to distinguish objects from their surroundings. The Golden Gate Bridge is a darker shade, while the international orange used for black boxes is much brighter.
PHOTO: The tone of international orange used to paint the Golden Gate Bridge is most closely matched by Pantone colour 180.(AFP: Justin Sullivan)
2. A 'black box' comes in two parts
The "black box" is made up of two separate pieces of equipment: the flight data recorder (FDR) and a cockpit voice recorder (CVR). They are compulsory on any commercial flight or corporate jet, and are usually kept in the tail of an aircraft, where they are more likely to survive a crash. FDRs record things like airspeed, altitude, vertical acceleration and fuel flow. Early versions used wire string to encode the data; these days they use solid-state memory boards. Solid-state recorders in large aircraft can track more than 700 parameters.
PHOTO: The black boxes from the Asiana plane that crashed short of the runway at San Francisco airport on July 6, 2013.(Twitter: @NTSB)
3. They were invented by an Australian
Dr David Warren's own father was killed in a Bass Strait plane crash in 1934, when David was just nine years old. In the early 1950s, Dr Warren had an idea for a unit that could record flight data and cockpit conversations, to help analysts piece together the events that led to an accident. He wrote a memo for the Aeronautical Research Centre in Melbourne called "A Device for Assisting Investigation into Aircraft Accidents", and in 1956 produced a prototype flight recorder called the "ARL Flight Memory Unit". His invention did not get much attention until five years later, and the units were eventually manufactured in the UK and US. However, Australia was the first country to make the technology compulsory.
4. Experts don't call them "black boxes"
The term "black box" is favoured by the media, but most people in the know don't call them that. There are several theories for the original of the name "black box", ranging from early designs being perfectly dark inside, to a journalist's description of a "wonderful black box", to charring that happens in post-accident fires.
From The Conversation:
Black boxes are normally referred to by aviation experts as electronic flight data recorders. Their role is to keep detailed track of on-flight information, recording all flight data such as altitude, position and speed as well as all pilot conversations. It is common for many civil airliners to have multiple devices to carry out these tasks so that information can be gathered more easily in the event of a failure. In most instances, they are used to help in the diagnosis of what may have been the likely cause of an accident.
5. Only 2 hours of cockpit conversations are kept
Digital recorders have enough storage for 25 hours of flight data but only two hours of cockpit voice recording, which is recorded over itself in a loop. The CVRs track the crew's interactions with each other and air traffic control, but also background noise that can give vital clues to investigators. Earlier magnetic tape versions could only record 30 minutes of cockpit conversations and noise, which was also recorded in a loop.
PHOTO: The magnetic tape flight data recorder from Alaska Airlines Flight 261 was retrieved off the coast of California after the plane crashed in 2000. (AFP: Manny Ceneta)
6. It can take a long time to find one
PHOTO: One of two black boxes from an Air France flight which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 is displayed in Paris on May 12, 2011. (Charles Platiau : Reuters)
Black boxes are fitted with an underwater locator beacon that starts emitting a pulse if its sensor touches water. They work to a depth of just over four kilometres, and can "ping" once a second for 30 days before the battery runs out. After Air France flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, it took search teams two years to find and raise the black boxes. They provided valuable information about what actually happened prior to the crash.
7. They're virtually indestructible...
FDRs are usually double-wrapped in titanium or stainless steel, and must be able to withstand atrocious conditions. The crucial part that contains the memory boards, the CSMU, is shot out of an air cannon to create an impact of 3,400 Gs and then smashed against a target. It is subjected to a 227kg weight with a pin attached to it, which is dropped onto the unit from a height of three metres. Researchers try to crush it, destroy it in an hour of 1,100 degree Celsius fire, submerge it in a pressurised salt water tank, and immerse it in jet fuel.
8. ... But they're not as powerful as your phone
In the aftermath of MH370, experts say it might be time to update methods of collecting flight data. Passengers are able to text, stream and surf the internet but the data recorders on board are not communicating in real time with the rest of the world. However, the bandwidth needed to stream huge amounts of data from large aircraft is not currently feasible. Aviation author Stephen Trimble writes in the Guardian that Boeing has applied for a patent on a system that will transmit a subset of data including the plane's location:
There will be costs to mandating such a system, but the benefits are clear. Multi-national search and recovery teams involving a fleet of ships and search aircraft should no longer be necessary. Critical safety data could provide clues of system or structural failures much faster, making the entire air transport system safer.
As the Saudi Arabia-Iran proxy war rages in Muslim world, the news of Pakistan changing its nonaligned stance in favour of an interim caretaker setup in Syria – and also of supporting Syrian rebels with arms supplies and even training – would be a dire signal that national policymakers have not learned from history. The consequences for the independence of Pakistan’s foreign policy, and ramifications for the trajectory of its standing in the comity of nations, are immense – especially among “brotherly” Muslim countries and neighbours with whom Pakistan shares land borders.
The Royal Visit
The Saudi crown prince, Shaikh Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, who is also the Kingdom’s deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, visited Pakistan from February 15 to February 17, and was given a red carpet welcome in Islamabad. He met with the civilian as well as the military leadership of the country, and – given the proximity of the ruling PML-N with the House of Saud, the monarchy that rules Saudi Arabia – this was a unique opportunity for both Sunni “brotherly nations” to bolster defence and security cooperation, sign MoU’s and agreements, and most importantly, “strengthen their relationship as the United States recalibrates its approach to the region”, as noted by Taimur Khan in the UAE newspaper The National.
The highest-level public meetings between Riyadh and Islamabad in six years began last month with successive visits to Pakistan by the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud Al Faisal, and the deputy defence minister, Prince Salman bin Sultan. They were followed last week by the first overseas trip by Pakistan’s new COAS, General Raheel Sharif: during his three-day trip, General Sharif met King Abdullah and military officials to discuss plans for a “new era in strategic partnership”, according to a Pakistan army spokesman. Then came the crown prince’s visit, whose delegation included the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, the ministers of economy and planning, of commerce and industry, as well as Saudi businessmen who have been meeting with Pakistani business leaders.
Importance of Pak-Saudi Ties: Stabilizing Afghanistan after 2014 and Mutual Defence Assurances
Analysts say both countries are looking to deepen their strategic military ties as the US begins to shifts its resources. “In view of current challenges, there is a need to further strengthen defence cooperation between the two countries and a new era of strategic relationship needs to start,” Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said during Prince Salman’s visit. The visit, made on request of the Pakistani Prime Minister, was designed to promote the roles of the two countries to maintain security, stability and development at regional and international arenas, particularly Islamic issues and role of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. During the visit, the media rumour mill was focusing on the Musharraf trial as well as the Pakistani government’s talks with the TTP – the Saudi crown prince said that those were Pakistan’s internal matters, in which Saudi Arabia will not meddle or interfere, and that the Kingdom wants peace and tranquility to prevail in Pakistan. After Pakistan, the crown prince also visited Japan, India and the Maldives.
Even as Afghanistan is on the top of both countries’ agendas, a major worry for Saudi Arabia is the process of rapprochement started between Iran and the U.S. According to David Weinberg, who studies Saudi affairs at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defence of Democracies think tank, Prince Salman’s visit to Pakistan in particular was “an indicator that the warming of … security ties is genuine and not just for show, since [he] handles a great deal of the operational heavy lifting at Saudi Arabia’s defence ministry – including major initiatives on Syria, military procurement and regional cooperation”. Prince Salman was, until recently, the deputy to the Saudi spy chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who is also his brother, and was considered to be one of the key figures in Riyadh’s efforts to finance, arm and train Syrian rebels. Now he is the Defence Minister as well as the deputy premier.
For Pakistan, military and civilian aid from the U.S. has been crucial to help stabilize its teetering economy. Even though it is likely that the two countries discussed continuing U.S. support after its withdrawal from Afghanistan, “there is a lot of uncertainty with regards to aid from the U.S.”, said Arif Rafiq, president of Vizier Consulting, a political risk and security consultancy, and a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington. A complete withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan “means that Pakistan has to look to alternative sources to guarantee its own stability, that’s why the Saudis are being engaged,” Mr Rafiq said. “The Saudis are engaging Pakistan for their own reasons”. These reasons include short-term tactical goals (such as Syria) as well as long-term strategic goals (such as Iran).
As both have much to gain from engaging each other in stronger defence ties, there have been many reports that Pakistan will help Saudi Arabia arm and train Syrian rebels – something that the Sunni kingdom could not convince the U.S. to do – and that even though there are hints that Saudi Arabia can obtain nuclear arms from Pakistan to counter Iran (unconfirmed reports state that two nuclear-capable ballistic missiles from Pakistan have already been stationed in Saudi Arabia), the latest moves in Saudi-Pak engagement are meant to send a message. Simon Henderson, an expert on Saudi Arabia and on Pakistan’s nuclear programme, and director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Gulf and Energy Policy programme, says that the meetings are supposed to get both the White House and the Iranians to “pay attention”. This seems plausible, as the U.S. has continued its policy of engaging Iran – after a hiatus of three decades – despite criticism and anger from Saudi Arabia as well as Israel. As is obvious, Saudi displeasure and reservations on the U.S. role has not had the impact that it used to have in the past.
Pakistan’s Alleged “Policy Shift” on Syria
Pakistan’s (unconfirmed) decision (which is denied by the Foreign Office as well as the Prime Minister’s Adviser on Foreign Policy and National Security) to support the Syrian rebels via Saudi Arabia, and funnel arms to them via Jordan, is a huge but expected foreign policy move by Pakistan in the Middle East: it is synonymous with its role in the GCC, and how it has implemented its foreign policy in Bahrain as well, though it opted out of direct involvement in the Egyptian or the Libyan affair, for that matter. This move is bound to anger Iran and test Iran’s patience with Pakistan, which has been a U.S. ally since 2001, but had (or officially still has) adopted a policy of neutrality in the proxy wars that the Sunni Saudi Arabia and the Shi’ite Iran have been fighting throughout the Muslim world. As the ruling Alawite regime in Syria is allied to Iran – and Iran continues to invest heavily in propping up Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus by providing finance, weapons, and manpower as well – any move that would be aimed at tilting the existing status quo on the ground in Syria in favour of the Sunni militants would force Iran’s hand not only in the Levant and the Middle East, but also in other places which challenge Iran’s projection of power. Saudi Arabia wants Pakistan to supply “Anza Mk-I” or “Anz Mk-II” anti-aircraft rockets (known as MANPADS, or man-portable air-defence systems) and anti-tank rockets, which will be stored in Jordan before they are delivered to the Syrian rebels.
On February 24, Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokesperson Tasnim Aslam denied reports of Pakistan intending to supply Syrian rebels with weapons and arms as “baseless and have no sense”. However, veteran journalist Amir Mateen wrote that, “the Foreign Office denied the report but was rather sketchy in explaining its side of the story. This had the National Assembly fuming on Monday”. The next day, on February 25, the PM’s Adviser on National Security and Foreign Policy, Sartaj Aziz, clarified this stance on the floor of the National Assembly: in a policy statement to the lower house of Parliament, he said that, “Pakistan fully honours national and international laws in its agreements and sale of arms”. He said that the government rejects speculations in the media about any change in Pakistan’s policy on Syria, or linking it with the visit of Saudi crown prince. Aziz reiterated that Pakistan “stands by its stance of quick solution to conflict in Syria and restoration of peace and stability” – while mentioning Pakistan’s international obligations to UN resolutions as well as the Geneva peace process, he added that Pakistan stood committed to its stance of withdrawal of foreign armed forces from Syria, lifting the siege of different cities and stopping bombardment in those areas, and enabling the people of Syria to run the affairs of their country. Aziz said Pakistan was also committed to its stance for protection of territorial sovereignty of Syria, stop atrocities and contribute to international efforts for restoration of peace in the restive country, respect to masses opinion and initiation of dialogue to defuse the situation. He said the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had also stressed at the United Nations and urged international community to restart the stalled political process in Syria to ensure peace and security.
The PM’s Adviser concluded his statement by saying that, “there is no change of stance, as it was manifested in Pak-Saudi joint statement at the time of the visit of the crown prince, and our written position. Our stance is clear; that we are not cooperating with anybody. It is not our policy to interfere into other’s affairs. Our policy is principled and neutral. We are not going to provide arms or assist anybody.” He also added that non-state actors must be controlled. However, Amir Mateen notes that, “Sartaj Aziz’s explanation sounded pretty plausible but a few questions remained unanswered. The timing was crucial; why should the government choose to announce our position in a joint communiqué with a powerful Middle Eastern country. After all, the Foreign Office had not expressed its Syria position so emphatically earlier. Also, Pakistan (as Iran) was not a participant to the 20 plus countries who were part of the Geneva Communiqué.”
The Saudi Role in the Syrian Civil War
Of the roughly 23 million citizens of Syria, Sunni Muslims constitute 74% of the population, while other Muslim sects (including the ruling Alawite sect) form only 16% of the population. Therefore, the Syrian civil war – which started on March 15, 2011, and has been raging for almost three years now – is a scenario that is similar to that in Bahrain, but with one critical difference; in Bahrain, a Shi’ite majority population initiated an uprising against the ruling Sunni monarchy of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa on February 14, 2011, in the midst of the “Arab Spring” that was ongoing in Tunisia and Egypt at the time. The Bahrain uprising continues as a low-intensity political disobedience movement for over three years now, and aims at ensuring equality for Shi’ites in addition to political freedoms and fair elections. As protesters gathered around the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, the Bahraini capital, and encamped there, the government of King Hamad – fearing further instability and possible overthrow – declared martial law and imposed a three-month-long emergency on March 15, 2011: a day earlier, 1,000 troops from Saudi Arabia and 500 troops from the UAE arrived in Bahrain to assist the local security forces in quelling the uprising. They arrived on the request of King Hamad and the Bahraini government, and under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Saudi Arabia has a strong influence on Syria’s southern front, where it coordinates with Jordan, and has helped unite the rebel fighters in the area; on the other hand, Qatar and Turkey are responsible for coordinating with the rebels on the northern front. Saudi Arabia has come to eclipse Qatar as the main supporter of the Syrian rebels, a development illustrated by the election last July of Ahmad Jarba, who has strong Saudi links, to lead the Syrian National Coalition, the main umbrella opposition group. The trend appeared to continue with the dismissal of General Selim Idriss, the top commander of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, in February. Idriss was considered close to Qatar, and the main criticism of Idriss was “bad distribution of weapons” and “errors in battle”. And after the Saudi crown prince visited Pakistan, Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Jarba told the media that “powerful arms will be arriving soon”. So Saudi Arabia is in a frontline position vis-à-vis the Sunni militants in Syrian civil war, especially in terms of countering the Iranian influence in the region, which is also immense:including Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon and Shi’ite fighters from Iraq, to IRGC and Quds force specialistsnumbering in the hundreds if not thousands, to steady support in terms of weapons and ammunition to the Assad regime. On February 13 this year, Iranian Revolutionary Guard-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) Brigadier General Hassan Shateri was assassinated in Syria – ostensibly by the Syrian opposition militia forces while he was returning from Aleppo to Beirut via Damascus, although Iran alleged that Israel was behind the attack. General Shateri is the senior-most member of the Quds Force known to have been killed outside of Iran in the organization’s three-decade history; he had deep connections with Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran’s global force projection network. His death is considered to be a serious blow to the Quds Force, and his very presence in northern Syria revealed the depth of Iran’s involvement in that conflict. However, the position on the ground – as well as on the negotiating table in Geneva – has brought the civil war to a stalemate, with no side having the capacity or ability to strike a decisive blow against the other. This stalemate persists despite the parties to the Syrian conflict (the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition) being heavily supported in all forms by their allies from abroad, and despite the immense investment(s) of Saudi Arabia (and other Sunni allies) as well as of Iran to bolster their respective allies in the Syrian conflict.
Linking the Royal Saudi Visit to Pakistan’s Syria Policy
So it seems that the visit of the Saudi crown prince was to elicit and confirm Pakistani support for the Sunni position in Syria, particularly after failure in the Geneva process talks – the Saudi royal was neither in Pakistan to convince the leadership to let Musharraf go, nor was he in the country to give his two cents on the peace talks initiative with the TTP. It has been reported that the Saudi move has come after frustration in efforts to get the U.S. to train and arm Syrian rebels, and that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was earlier hoping for two entire Pakistani divisions to be sent to Syria – two divisions of the Pakistan Army have reportedly maintained deployment readiness and have been on standby position since 2011 to be deployed to Saudi Arabia “if the kingdom is threatened by Iran or the pro-democracy uprisings sweeping the Arab world”. It has also been reported thatPakistan has (allegedly) covertly supported the Saudi effort in the Syrian civil war for some time now.
Given the Saudi crown prince’s pivotal role in setting the Kingdom’s Syria policy, and that three important visits – two from Saudi royals to Pakistan, and one from the Pakistani Army Chief to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – preceded this trip, it was widely reported that Pakistan had been elicited by Saudi Arabia to train and arm Syrian Sunni rebels: as mentioned above, the “Anza Mk-I” or “Anz Mk-II” anti-aircraft rockets (MANPADS) and anti-tank rockets acquired from Pakistan will be stored in Jordan before they are delivered to the Syrian rebels. During the Saudi crown prince’s visit, a joint statement issued after high-level meetings stated that “The two sides reiterated the need for finding a quick solution to the existing conflict in Syria according to Geneva I Resolution in order to restore peace and security in Syria and prevent bloodshed of the brotherly Syrian people”. It has been alleged that Saudi Arabia “bought off” Pakistan’s foreign policy and enlisted its political support as well as assurance of weapons supplies to Syrian Sunni rebels for a credit of US$ 183 million for the import of urea fertilizer from the Arab monarchy.
Ramifications for Pakistan’s Foreign Policy Shift from a Nonaligned Stance
Though Pakistan officially denies that it has changed its foreign policy vis-à-vis Syria, the negative consequences and overall ramifications of such a shift must be analyzed and laid bare before the country’s policymakers – who have been taken to task by the opposition in both houses of Parliament – as well as the nation at large. By shifting from its status of neutrality and non-alignment in Arab-Arab or intra-Muslim conflict – overtly or covertly – in the form of supporting a caretaker setup in Syria instead of continuing its previous policy regarding the issue, Pakistan has also shown that it can take a significant departure from its existing and implementable policies in the international arena. The rationale behind this shift – if it has indeed taken place – should be cogent and should serve Pakistan’s own national security and foreign policy interests: otherwise the impression will be that Pakistan’s foreign policy is now being “dictated” by “Wahabbi petro-dollars” instead of “America’s dollars and aid”. Indeed, the political opposition in parliament accused the government of obliging “friendly Sheikhs” for their hospitality, but at the cost of national interests. Many more thought that this would unnecessarily bring Pakistan in the middle of two Muslim countries tussling and fighting proxy wars everywhere and, obviously, amounted to interference in internal affairs of Syria.
But one also must wonder why Pakistan does not share the apprehensions of the U.S., in that weapons sent to militants fighting Bashar al-Assad in Syria could also be used against other states. While the United States could allow their allies provide the rebels with anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons following the failure of Geneva talks and the renewed tension with Russia (especially over the evolving situation in the Ukraine and Crimea), provided those weapons to the rebels “relieves pressure on the US in the short-term”, there is always a danger associated with that as a policy measure: “the long-term political worry is that MANPADS (man-portable air-defence systems) will leak and be used to bring down a civilian airliner somewhere in the world”.
One must also remember – and remind Pakistan’s policymakers and policy implementers – that the results of Pakistan’s policy of supplementing non-state actors with weapons and financing – to whatever end – did not end up to be a fruitful policy for internal security (the state’s writ) or regional security (the state’s capability to project power) after 2004, and especially after 2007. This apprehension was acknowledged by the PM’s Adviser on National Security and Foreign Policy, during his policy statement in the National Assembly, when he mentioned that non-state actors should be controlled. It should also be noted that when Pakistan was about to send military forces to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in support of the U.S.-led First Gulf War in 1991, it was the incumbent PML-N in power that refused to interfere militarily – or allow the Pakistan Army to interfere and aid in shifting the power balance – in an Arab-Arab conflict.
It has been reported in July 2013 that the Pakistani Taliban are also partaking in the fight against the Assad regime – an apparent sign that the TTP has become a potent transnational threat, and that Islamic extremists and terrorists are actively involved in conflicts against the state so as to create a security vacuum (via revolt: khuruj) and then fill it with governance according to an archaic and apocryphal version of Shariah law.
In addition to the TTP, at least two Al-Qaeda affiliates/franchises (the Jabhat an-Nusra, and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – now known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) are known to be taking part in the revolt against the Syrian government; at the same time, Al-Qaeda chapters in the Anbar province of Iraq (particularly inFallujah and Ramadi) have taken control of the cities and surrounding areas since January this year, expelling government, police and military from these Sunni bastions – now Nuri al-Maliki’s government is launching military counter-attacks in the run-up to crucial elections in the country. Al-Qaeda remains a threat to all Muslim states around the world: whether it is Sunni Saudi Arabia, or Shi’ite Iran or Syria, or multi-sectarian Muslim nations like Pakistan and Iraq (where it is more deadly in terms of increasing sectarian strife and supporting the Sunni or anti-Shi’ite militant extremists that already exist).
Latest reports indicate that the newly formed Syrian rebel group “Southern Front”, which has received Saudi support and whom Riyadh intends to arm with advanced weaponry, has openly collaborated with Al-Qaeda affiliates and allied jihadist militia factions in Syria – even though this rebel group was preferred over the “Islamic Front” so that arms provided to Syrian rebels would be “less likely to fall into the hands of Al-Qaeda”. The “Southern Front” is led by Bashar al-Zoubi, who is the commander of the powerful “Yarmouk Brigade” that operates near Daraa – elements of the “Yarmouk Brigade”, like those of the “Islamic Front”, are known to have collaborated with Jabhat an-Nusra.
Giving India a Golden Opportunity?
The shift in Pakistan’s foreign policy does not only invite the threat of relations with Iran going from bad to worse: it also gives India an opportunity to play the role of balancer or peace-maker between Iran and Saudi Arabia – a role that was custom-built for Pakistan, which enjoys friendly ties with the Sunni monarchy and shares a border with the Shi’ite theocracy. As Pakistan ceases to be non-aligned in this Sunni-Shi’ite proxy warfare being waged throughout the Muslim world, India hosted Saudi crown prince for a three-day visit from February 26 onwards while it was concurrently hosting Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif who visited India for a two-day trip starting February 27. Former Indian foreign secretary, Kanwal Sibal, postulated that, “It helps (India) to balance the relationship since both (Saudi Arabia and Iran) are pitted against each other in West Asia, in context of Sunni-Shia conflict… It is wise to have political communication with both sides. It is also optically good to have both visits in the same week.”
Since the Middle East region hosts around 7 million Indian expatriate workers who send approximately US$ 30 billion back home in remittances on an annual basis, Mridul Kumar, joint secretary (Gulf) in the Indian ministry of external affairs noted the importance India gives to forging stronger ties with countries in the Gulf, “This is really one of the most important relationships that we have across the globe. The Gulf countries provide almost 60% of our energy requirement. The Gulf countries are our largest trading partner by far as a regional group. And we are looking at an annual trade of over $180 billion, which is almost 26% of our global trade.”
Commentaries by Elizabeth Roche and Saeed Naqvi regarding India’s renewed focus on “West Asia” are particularly insightful and discuss reasons as well as intentions for India playing the role that it played in February (and that it might continue to play, until it is hindered by the U.S. or by China in doing so).
The Saudi crown prince also signed MoU’s (what the Hindustan Times’ Shishir Gupta termed “a major defence agreement”) with India on joint military exercises, hardware sales and transfer of technology. “Riyadh has signed a similar agreement with Islamabad” in the preceding weeks, Gupta noted, saying that “Riyadh has in the past indicated that it wants the Indian Army to train Saudi Arabian troops in mountain warfare by setting up a combat school [and it] also wants joint counter-terrorism exercises”. According to Gupta, a senior Indian official said (on condition of anonymity), “The [defence] MoU [between India and Saudi Arabia] provides for a proper bilateral defence policy group with defence ministries on both sides setting the agenda. Given the status of Saudi Arabia in the Islamic world, this is no mean achievement. It signals that Pakistan is no longer the only favourite nation for Riyadh in South Asia.”
As dangerous as these developments are for Pakistan’s international relations and its role in regional security – especially in terms of the traditional hostility between India and Pakistan in every dimension – Tridivesh Singh Maini of The Diplomat says that India has the chance to develop friendly relations with “key” Middle Eastern countries, but still needs “skill” to achieve a foreign policy trajectory that will achieve this objective. Maini says that a Modi-BJP-led Indian government may find it difficult to keep friendly ties with Saudi Arabia, but while a Modi government “may not find it difficult to accelerate economic cooperation and trade”, it will have to keep a “close watch on the turbulent geopolitics of the Middle East”.
As India has now started playing the role of non-aligned peace promoter between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Pakistan has badly damaged its position in the eyes of Iran as well as of Pakistani Shi’ites – as the government dispels criticism and says that there has been no policy shift because the government is merely committing to the agreements reached in the Geneva process, the opposition in the Senate as well as National Assembly has formally taken up the matter and given the government a tough time on its increased closeness with Saudi Arabia at the expense of its ties with its Iranian neighbour. PPP’s Naveed Qamar was quite vocal in his arguments when responding to Adviser Sartaj Aziz’s policy statement and clarification; he said, “we are calling for a regime change and opposing military operations in other countries at a time when our own military is conducting air strikes on terrorists … We should get our own house in order before interfering in the affairs of others” (the last statement being an apparent “slap in the face” to the PML-N and to the Prime Minister’s statement on his visit to the U.S. and after meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama). The upheaval in Pakistan’s parliament – which is otherwise silent or unaware of international political developments – over the issue of an alleged shift in foreign policy towards a country in civil war shows the political clout of Iran in Pakistan’s own internal political arena, as well as the importance given to friendly relations with Iran by Shi’ite politicians as well as the Shi’ite citizens of Pakistan.
Pakistan is depending on the Iran-Pakistan (IP) “peace” gas pipeline to restore some order and balance in the national demand and supply of natural resources. Even if natural resources aren’t as important in Pakistan’s foreign policy (even though they are crucial when it comes to dealing with the persisting energy crisis) as security issues are, it must be remembered that Iran – as a neighbour of Afghanistan – has a very important role in the stability of South Asia, especially as foreign troops depart by the end of 2014. Pakistan cannot afford to anger another neighbour on its Western border, as the incumbent administration in Kabul is overtly anti-Pakistan and the neighbour on the eastern border is least forgiving of all.
Has Pakistan’s neutrality actually been compromised? If not, will perceptions alone be enough to ruin Pak-Iran relations? What would be Iran’s response/backlash to Pakistan aiding the Syrian rebels by training them and giving them advanced weaponry? Will the provision of anti-aircraft weaponry to the Syrian rebels actually be a “game changer” in the Syrian civil war, putting more pressure on the Assad regime than ever before? And what does the U.S. want – does it really want détente with the Rouhani administration in Tehran, or will it continue destabilizing and weakening Iran at the behest (and with the aid) of Saudi Arabia as well as Israel?
Pakistan’s previous Middle East policy – based on Islamic solidarity – was in tatters as it actually supported the political status quo in the region, and therefore indirectly supported autocratic leaders in these countries. Arab exceptionalism was finally challenged by the tide of democratization and the “Arab Spring”, as an enlightened youth took to the Arab streets, demanding more freedoms and sweeping changes in the political systems of their countries. Yunas Samad noted that while the Pakistani military has seen secondment to many countries in the Middle East (including the stationing of a Pakistan Army armoured brigade in Saudi Arabia for over eight years in the 1980’s), Pakistanis were also recruited as mercenaries – particularly in Bahrain – in support of Sunni regimes. Samad said that, “If change comes, Pakistan may find that it has backed the wrong side and, keeping that in mind, it needs to develop a more sensitive understanding of the momentous developments taking place, and not view them from the Saudi perspective of seeing the movement in Sunni-Shia terms”. Pakistan still needs to be cognizant of the very real possibility that if these Sunni autocratic regimes topple, those who come to power afterwards – and those who put them in power, i.e. the Arab people – may view Pakistan in a negative light.
Pakistan must clearly define and outline its Middle East policy, since it was actively pursuing friendly relations with many countries in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 – especially after the “Arab Spring” was abating and some clarity and stability was being realized among many governments in the region. In the previous government, Pakistan appeared to have consolidated its interests in the immediate region, and affirmed its policy of supporting and facilitating rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Any departures from this policy will negatively affect Pakistan’s economy and foreign policy, and it will be very difficult for Pakistan to protect itself or recover from these negative ramifications. After the Saudi overture, Pakistan should take into consideration the diplomatic activities of India near the end of February – hosting both Saudi Arabia and Iran – and must make its own overtures to Iran (preferably by keeping Saudi Arabia in the loop). Pakistan can hardly afford any more complications in its relationship with Iran after 5 Iranian soldiers were kidnapped from the Iran-Pakistan border and are allegedly being held in captivity inside Pakistani territory.
Though friendly ties with all nations – especially superpowers like the U.S., China, Russia, etc. and Muslim states like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iran, UAE, etc. – should be a clear and actively pursued goal of national foreign policy regardless of which political party is in power or forms the federal government, Pakistan must carefully consider its own interests in the present environment and decide how far it can go without negative fallout.