SHARIF IN TURKEY TO DISCUSS YEMEN
NEW DELHI: Whilst the world watches Pakistan walk a tightrope over the crisis in Yemen, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif arrived for a one-day official visit to Ankara, where he is scheduled to meet with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The purpose of the visit is to discuss the crisis in Yemen, as speculation builds over Pakistan’s role in the Yemen crisis. “The prime minister and the president of Turkey will exchange views on the situation relating to Yemen. They will also discuss how the two countries can be helpful in addressing the issue,” the foreign office had said.
In his pre-departure statement, Sharif said that Pakistan believed in a peaceful resolution of the crisis and wished to promote unity among Muslim countries.
Pakistan is caught in a difficult spot. Saudi Arabia -- that is currently bombing Houthi rebels in Yemen and considering a ground invasion -- has called upon Pakistan to join its coalition. This is a request that Pakistan cannot ignore, given its close relations with the Saudi monarchy. However, the South Asian nation has to be careful of its own relations with Iran -- with whom it shares a border; Iran, reportedly, supports the Houthi rebels -- and it has to be mindful of not overextending the Pakistani army, that is already embroiled in a military offensive within the country’s own borders.
Although no official confirmation has come from Pakistan regarding its role in the Saudi coalition, a Reuters report earlier this week, Pakistan will send troops to Yemen to lend support to the Saudi-led coalition that currently comprises of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt and Sudan.
The report is based on a statement of an unnamed senior Pakistani government official. "We have already pledged full support to Saudi Arabia in its operation against rebels and will join the coalition," the official reportedly said. This was also corroborated by reports out of Saudi Arabia, with the country’s state media reporting last week that Pakistan was one of the Muslim countries outside of the Middle East that was considering providing material support.
Pakistan, too, confirmed that Saudi Arabia had asked it to join the coalition. Dawn News quoted Sartaj Aziz saying that top Saudi officials had contacted the Pakistani leadership requesting it to join the Yemen operation. A decision has not yet been taken, Aziz had said. Also according to Dawn, Foreign Office spokesperson Tasneem Aslam “told reporters at the weekly media briefing in Islamabad that Saudi Arabia had contacted Pakistan on an emergency basis and extended the invitation to join the operation against Houthi rebels in Yemen. She did not specify the details of the request made by Saudi Arabia to Pakistan but said that the matter was being examined.”
Other reports have since emerged, indicating that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on this Monday agreed to fully support the Saudi-led coalition by committing troops.
Pakistan’s Defence Minister, Khawaj Asif, however, has denied the reports. Asif told Reuters that a delegation led by him and foreign policy chief Sartaj Aziz, would go to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday and then decide. Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhary also issued a denial. “These are several reports in the media which are completely baseless,” Chaudhary told the press on Saturday evening.
The Defence Minister and Advisor were due to arrive in Riyadh on Monday, but delayed their trip at the request of the Saudis, who launched air strikes against Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen last week, and are reportedly considering a ground invasion.
Pakistan’s role in the crisis is in the context of its relationship with Saudi Arabia, with both being Sunni-majority nations. Saudi Arabia is committed to battling the Houthis in Yemen, who are believed to have the backing of the region’s other power -- Shia-majority Iran.
"Pakistan remains firmly committed to supporting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia in accordance with the aspirations of the people of Pakistan," a statement from Sharif's media office said. "Pakistan stands committed to playing a meaningful role in arresting the deteriorating situation in the Middle East."
This support was already a given. In addition to being allied in terms of Sunni sectarian identity, Pakistan continues to receive much-needed financial assistance from Riyadh. Last year, for instance, Pakistan reportedly received $1.5 billion in aid from Saudi Arabia to meet debt obligations and bolster its foreign exchange reserves. History, too, is indication of Pakistan’s commitment to Saudi Arabia. In 1990, Pakistan agreed to join an international coalition in defence of Saudi Arabia against Iraqi aggression.
Meanwhile, others in Pakistan are cautioning the leadership of involvement in the crisis in Yemen. Imran Khan, leader of the Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), speaking to journalists after inaugurating the PTI Business Club a few days ago, said Pakistan was still facing consequences of the US-led war in the region and should refrain from involving itself in another US-backed war. “Pakistan should play its role for peace in the region,” Khan said.
An article in Defense News, questions whether Pakistan will be able to support Saudi Arabia militarily, given that the country is engaged in an offensive against militants in the northwest. The article quotes former Australian defense attache to Islamabad Brian Cloughley saying that there is little support for the mission within Pakistan's military, but that the military leadership can be overruled by the prime minister.
The same article quotes Claude Rakisits, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center, saying that although Pakistan is compelled to be involved given its relationship with Saudi Arabia, the country’s role will be uncertain "given the ongoing military operation in the tribal areas. The Pakistan Army will nevertheless be constrained by what it can contribute on the ground."
Meanwhile, reports in Pakistani media indicate that Iran -- with whom Pakistan shares a border -- has reached out and conveyed its desire to hold talks with Pakistan on the conflict in Yemen. The Iranian proposal for a dialogue on the crisis in Yemen and Pakistan’s likely participation in the Saudi-led coalition against Houthi rebels was made at a meeting between Pakistani Ambassador in Tehran Noor Mohammad Jadmani and a senior Iranian foreign ministry official last week, a Pakistani official disclosed on Monday. The Iranian foreign ministry had asked the Pakistani envoy to convey Tehran’s concerns over reports about Pakistan’s willingness to join the military coalition cobbled by Saudi Arabia for fighting Houthis,” a report in Dawn News states.