Revitalizing Pakistan-Syria Policy

From the BOARD of EDITORIAL ADVISORS, Ms NASIM ZEHRA makes a case for improving relations between the two countries.

On June 10 a telex went out to Oman from the Pakistan Foreign Office advising that a ministerial level delegation represent Pakistan at the Syrian President Hafez al Assad’s funeral. The Foreign Minister who was accompanying the Chief Executive General Pervez Musharraf agreed with the recommendation. Pakistan’s four member delegation headed by the Minister of Information was sent off. Naturally many in Pakistan and Damascus were surprised by this decision. The Chief Executive was ill-advised by the Foreign Office; his own uniformed advisors too chose not to question this advice. Logistically the Chief Executive was in Oman, his arrival in Syria would have been an easy affair.

Some contrast with our own past practices. In November 1982 Zia went against the advise of his advisors and left for Moscow to attend Brezhnev’s funeral. He cut short his visit to Singapore rushed from there to Moscow. Interestingly he was one of the five world leaders to be received by Andropov. In their meeting Andropov was tough. The Soviet army was facing a tough resistance from the Pakistan-American supported Afghan resistance, so an angry Andropov told Zia that Pakistan was a “tool in the hands of the Americans.” Undeterred Zia again arrived in Moscow in 1983 and in 1985 to participate in the funerals of Andropov and of Chernenko. He knew funerals had become power scenes; an opportunity to mix with important decision-makers.

Given the stature of Hafez al Assad in the Arab world, the increasing diplomatic significance of Syria which extends beyond the Middle East and above all the concrete opportunities that exist for vastly expanding Pakistan-Syrian commercial ties, the presence of the Chief Executive or at least the head of the State President Rafiq Tarrar would have been appropriate. Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto did the correct thing by arriving at the funeral. Syrians accorded her appropriate protocol due to a former Prime Minister.

Whatever Pakistan’s past relations with Syria it is Pakistan’s need to be forward-looking; work aggressively on developing economic relations as it is doing in the case of Iran and Iraq. Minor issues that have kept Pak-Syrian relations dormant simply need to be brushed aside. Pakistan needs to be proactive and not dwell on past irritants which the Foreign Office recalls: we have sent senior delegations without reciprocity from Syria and Damascus has not been supportive on Kashmir.

Yet these are small issues; ones that should be overlooked in the pursuit of a broader strategic vision which should compel Pakistan’s managers to actively develop economic and diplomatic ties with countries which we have ignored while overlooking the economic dimension of our foreign relations and by expending too much energy on opting for mere damage-limitation on the Pak-US front. Meanwhile, fairly surprised by the level of representation by Pakistan at the Assad funeral, many in Damascus wondered, incorrectly though, if Pakistan is still sulking about the support that Assad gave to the Bhutto family.

In Syria there exists immense goodwill for Pakistan and for its people. It exists at all levels. Assad personally had special respect and affection for Pakistan. He saw Pakistan as a country that was principled in its policies on the Arab -Israeli issue. “He has instructed all of us in the cabinet that we must make special effort for cooperation with Pakistan in any field, develop special relations with Pakistan” explained a Syrian minister to the Pakistani ambassador in Damascus. Syrians maintain that Pakistanis are “our blood brothers”, they fought alongside us against the Israelis. They express their closeness to Pakistanis in graphic ways. “We are two sides of the same coin”, remarked a senior Syrian official in Damascus while advocating deeper Syrian-Pakistani ties. Not surprisingly, the Syrian government is now weary of the Indian because of the growing India-Israel connection. That, however, may not last long as in the coming days the young Bashar will be forced to operate in grayer zones.

In Syria the only successful institution being run by the Pakistani government is a Pakistani School. The ‘school connection’ is a powerful one. In Damascus the Pakistan embassy runs a very popular and well managed school where children of most of Syrian cabinet members and top generals study. The Pakistani ambassador, therefore, enjoys a special connection and leverage in Damascus.

The Syrians have demonstrated their keenness to develop economic ties with Pakistan by making concrete proposals. Syrians have sought Pakistan’s help to operationalize a tractor plant for which engines, spare parts and technical expertise is required. Also they have requested Pakistan’s help to upgrade and revive their sugar, cement, fertilizer and paper industry. Cooperation in agriculture has also been sought. Admission for Syrian students in the Faisalabad Agriculture University has been requested. In the Information Technology field negotiations are already underway for Pakistan to set up an advanced institute for computer sciences and informatics in Damascus.

To illustrate Syrian political commitment towards improvement of Pak-Syrian ties with Pakistan, in January Syrian officials received Tariq Ikram, Chairman, Export Promotion Bureau, with all the protocol due to a minister. He was merely passing through Syria since he could not fly into Baghdad because of the UN sanctions on Iraq. Later during his official trip to Syria in May the Syrian Prime Minister Mohammad Mustapha Miro and six ministers including Dr Imadi Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade met with the EPB Chairman Tariq Ikram. The Prime Minister, repeating instructions issued by his leader Hafez al Assad, assured Ikram that he would personally look into “developing relations with Pakistan.” The Syrian requirements from Pakistan in the industrial, technological and agriculture have injected energy into a stagnating relationship.

On the Pakistani front the principle interlocutors with Syria, the Export Promotion Bureau is engaging with the Syria case. The ball is now in Pakistan’s court. With the expertise that now exists within the government set-up rapid and concrete response to Syrian proposals are required. How effectively can Pakistan respond to the Syrian requirements will ofcourse depend on the extent to which various ministries can work in a coordinated manner and can simultaneously develop effective partnership with the Pakistani private sector.

While the economic team undertakes to initiate a new phase in Pakistan-Syrian ties a concrete step from the top level is also required. Having missed the oppurtunity to attend the great Syrian leader’s funeral , the Chief Executive should be the first leader to be received in Damascus by the new Syrian President Bashar al Assad after he formally takes over as President on July 24.