Sunni Side Up: Saudi Arabia Seeking To Acquire Arms From Pakistan To Supply Syrian Rebels

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Saudi Prince Salman
Saudi Prince Salman

Saudi Arabia has entered into talks with Pakistan to purchase weapons that would be transferred to opposition forces in Syria to aid in their three-year battle to topple president Bashar al-Assad. Citing a Saudi source, Agence France Presse (AFP) reported that Riyadh is seeking to buy anti-aircraft and anti-tank rockets in an effort to help Syrian rebels equalize the firepower of Assad’s military. Pakistan manufactures shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, called Anza, which are based on a Chinese model.

The unnamed Saudi source cited that Pakistan’s army chief of staff, General Raheel Sharif, met with Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz in Riyadh earlier this month. Last week, Salman himself led a large Saudi delegation to Pakistan, just after the kingdom’s top diplomat Prince Saud al-Faisal visited the South Asian state. The Saudi source also stated that Jordan has agreed to store the Pakistani weapons before they are transferred to neighboring Syria. Syrian rebels have long desired anti-aircraft rockets to protect themselves from Assad’s warplanes, which regularly bomb rebel-controlled territories.

The Saudis are likely taking the circuitous route with Pakistan since the U.S. adamantly opposes supplying such weapons to Syrian rebels over fears they would fall into the hands of Islamic extremists who are believed to be helping the anti-Assad forces. But AFP noted that Syrian opposition leaders suggest that the U.S. has recently softened its position on this topic in the wake of the failed Geneva peace talks. "The United States could allow their allies to provide the rebels with anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons following the failure of Geneva talks and the renewed tension with Russia,” said Abdel Aziz al-Sager of the Gulf Research Centre, a Persian Gulf-focused non-partisan think tank.

AFP noted that Saudi Arabia, which helps coordinate with Jordan to offer assistance to Syrian rebels in the southern part of the county (while Turkey and Qatar do the same in the north), has become the biggest foreign supporter of the anti-Assad factions. Indeed, Ahmad Jarba, the leader of the Syrian opposition, has strong links to the Saudis.

Dr. Dilshod Achilov, assistant professor of Political Science at East Tennessee State University and an expert on Middle Eastern affairs, explained that the Saudis are seeking wider support for the Syrian rebels from the Sunni Muslim world (Assad and his Iranian allies are Shia Muslims). “Pakistan is a large Sunni country with a sizable military industry,” he said. “Saudi Arabia views the Syrian war as a key conflict against the archenemy of Sunni Islam -- the Shia Islam spearheaded by Iran.  Saudi Arabia may [also] be looking for broader Sunni support against the threat of rising Shia influence in the region. And Pakistan would be one of the natural allies to bring in.”

Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi, an independent Pakistani political and defense analyst, wrote in an op-ed piece for the Express Tribune newspaper that Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appears to be favoring Saudi Arabia (and other conservative Arab states like Bahrain and Kuwait) with respect to Middle Eastern policy. In fact, Pakistan has relinquished its earlier neutrality on the Syrian civil war by supporting Saudi demands for the removal of Assad from power. Rizvi suggests that Pakistan’s principal motivation for endorsing the Saudis lies more with financial needs than religion or politics. “Pakistan expects to get financial support in the form of loans, aid, investment, more jobs for Pakistanis, and supply of oil and gas on favorable terms from conservative but rich [Arab] kingdoms,” he wrote. “Furthermore, Nawaz Sharif and his family have special reverence for the House of Saud because it saved them from the clutches of [former Pakistani president Pervez] Musharraf’s military government in December 2000.”

Noting that Pakistan faces a “difficult economic situation” in 2014 and it is looking towards Saudi Arabia and other conservative Arab states for “economic support,” Islamabad should not become entangled in Mideast intrigues. “Pakistan must not be seen as partisan in intra-Arab conflicts,” he warned. “It should stay away from dynastic and regional rivalries in the Middle East.”

Achilov also commented that it’s not clear how involved Pakistani even wants to be in the Syrian quagmire. “In case Pakistan decides to extend military assistance [to the Saudis], it will be primarily driven by strategic calculations to counter Iran’s growing influence in the region, secure Saudi financial support , appease the Sunni majority inside [Pakistan], and influence the course of the conflict since Iran-dominated Syria would be unacceptable to Pakistan as well,” he said. “It is more likely that Pakistan may choose to support the Syrian armed rebels covertly in the first stage. It's unlikely that Pakistan will rush its arms openly, at least not immediately.”

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