Examining the Logic behind Pakistan’s Support for Damascus

Since the start of hostilities in 2011, Pakistan has shown consistent support for the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. Despite protests coming from Pakistan’s security partners - Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United States, as well as from domestic Islamist actors, Islamabad has remained persistent in its approach. What can explain this policy? This paper will examine the historical legacies of the Pakistan-Syria partnership, the presence of global Jihadist actors in both countries, as well as key geopolitical considerations in an attempt to identify the logic in Islamabad. It is likely that Pakistan is primarily driven by a fear of widespread sectarian violence within its own borders and by a resurgence of national identity. The actions of Islamabad have been to mitigate domestic threats, carefully avoiding decisions which would embolden sectarian hardliners inside Pakistan.


Introduction

"Pakistan is also against foreign military intervention in Syria and fully supports the territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic,” - Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry.

Chaudhry was addressing the Foreign Affairs Committee in Islamabad, reiterating what has been a consistent Pakistani policy since the beginning of hostilities in 2011. Though not officially taking a side in the ongoing civil war, Pakistan’s long-standing partnership with the Assad regime in Damascus, and opposition to the various other factions involved in the war, can certainly amount to a strategic partnership, if the word “alliance” is a little too strong. Islamabad’s policy can partially be explained in historical terms, however it is likely that current geopolitical and counterterrorism apprehensions are more decisive factors, as this paper will hope to demonstrate.

The topic of Pakistani policy toward Syria, and indeed, toward much of the Arab World outside of the Gulf countries, has largely been overlooked by Western analysts. As a result, it is all the more important to analyze them in a serious way. There are significant implications for time-honored geopolitical arrangements across the Middle East and South Asia, such as fractures in the Pakistani-Saudi Arabia partnership, stemming from Pakistani policy toward the Syrian conflict which many researchers seem to have missed.

Islamabad and Damascus may seem to be strange bedfellows, especially when one considers that supporting Assad is also the position of India and Iran. However, diplomatic positions regarding the Syrian conflict need not reflect regional rivalries in South Asia. Islamabad, New Delhi, and Tehran each have reasons for supporting Assad which have little to do with each other, but rather with their own national security interests. 

Ties that Bind? The Historical Relationship between Islamabad and Damascus

The 1974 Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit in Lahore served as an important historical milestone in the development of relations between Syria and Pakistan. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad made the first official state visit to Pakistan during this time, forging by some accounts a strong working relationship with Pakistani Prime Minister Bhutto. 

Assad condemned both the 1978 military coup and Bhutto’s subsequent execution in 1979 at the hands of General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. Syria furthermore granted asylum to three Bhutto family members in 1979 as a response, and offered refuge to other Pakistanis who were sympathetic to the previous government. As noted by retired Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, “Murtaza and Shahnawaz Bhutto travelled to Syria in 1979 to seek support for their campaign to save Bhutto and were offered asylum by the elder al-Assad. Murtaza spent several years in Syria before returning to Pakistan in 1993.” A decade after the coup, Hafez al-Assad worked to normalize Syrian-Pakistani relations, he “strongly supported Benazir Bhutto during the 1988 Pakistani presidential election campaign…convinced that Bhutto’s victory would strengthen Pakistan’s relationship with Syria’s principal international ally, the Soviet Union.”

Furthermore, “Assad also believed that Bhutto advocated left-wing principles that resembled those of the Syrian Baath Party. The alliance between the Assad and Bhutto families was revived in 2008, as Bashar al-Assad and Benazir Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, expanded Pakistan-Syria cooperation in the economic and security spheres.

Are familial and historical ties the only factors however?

Though being located in vastly different geographic areas, Syria and Pakistan share several similar security dilemmas. First among these is the high amount of sectarian violence in both countries, part of a growing trend throughout the Islamic world which shows no indications of slowing down. Though labeling the entire Syrian war as a sectarian conflict is over-simplistic, serious observers (regional or otherwise) realize that this is a central driving motivation for many fighters on both sides. The significant number of foreign fighters in Syria are driven primarily by sectarian allegiances, which presents unique long-term problems for Pakistan.

Secondly, terrorist safe-havens exist in both Syria and Pakistan, sometimes sheltering the same groups, or more precisely, affiliates of the same networks. The fact that large amounts of territory exist outside of state control in both countries may be another factor in explaining Islamabad’s sympathy for Damascus. Thirdly, both Pakistan and Syria have had foreign military interventions on their soil without the consent of their governments. Though calls for regime change, and direct military involvement in, Syria have certainly been more pronounced, many in Pakistan view American involvement in their territory as a lack of respect for Pakistani sovereignty. This is true regarding both the drone program operating in Pakistani tribal areas and the 2011 raid which killed Osama bin Laden. The sectarian dilemma will be the first subject for consideration.

Looking in the Mirror? – Syria and the Long-Term Implications of Sectarian Strife for Pakistan

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG) has actively recruited Shi’ite fighters from throughout the Muslim world for years. Shi’ite militants, volunteers or otherwise, have traveled to Syria (and Iraq) with Iranian facilitation from nearly the beginning of hostilities. For example, Lebanese Hezbollah radically changed the battlefield dynamics in Syria when it rapidly drove opposition forces from their borderland stronghold of al-Qusayr and have since remained central to Assad’s war efforts. Several Western researchers consider the Hezbollah movement to be the model Iran is exporting to Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. This combines an effective military force, a legitimate political party, an educational system, and a network of social relief activities in order to form a ‘state-within-a-state’ in predominately Shia regions.

Few Shia fighters, however, have drawn such high-profile attention as two Pakistanis who died in the defense of the Zeinab shrine near Damascus – the “martyrs of the Zeinabiyoun Brigade.” The Brigade, named after one of the daughters of the Prophet Muhammad, is believed to consist of approximately 1,000 fighters operating between recruitment in Pakistan, battlefields in Syria, and training facilities in Iran. In an interview with Reuters, Phillip Smyth, a Researcher at the University of Maryland and Adjunct Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that "The Zeinabiyoun are a Pakistani Shi’ite outfit that’s run by the IRGC…They’ve put together their own imagery, their own recruitment type material. They really became more of a marketable element toward the end of the summer of 2015. That’s when they became more of a centered group.”

Numerous experts have commented on the growing sectarianism in Pakistan, and how this will likely fuel recruitment for Shi’ite militant organizations. As this Pakistani minority faces increased violence and struggles to find security, many young men run an increased risk of becoming radicalized. Alex Vatanka, a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute, states that “there is a large pool to draw from… there are pockets within that Shi'ite community that have been willing to pick up arms to fight for their Shi’ite identity, their sectarian identity. And that’s what the IRGC is tapping into.” Adding further incentive, volunteers reportedly are offered Iranian citizenship and a salary equivalent to $1,100 USD (Rs120, 000).

While the phenomenon of sectarian conflict is not new to Pakistan (sectarian attacks have claimed 9,904 lives in 3,021 incidents since 1986) it does seem to be rapidly increasing. Sunnis are the decisive majority of the Pakistani population, with Shia consisting of only 20-25 percent. However, neither community is homogenous. Numerous theological schools, such as Deobandi, Barelvi, Sufi, and Salafi compete for dominance within the Sunni population, and Twelvers and Seveners compete among the Shia.

Where particular concern for Islamabad comes in, is the fact that militant organizations which were once strictly sectarian in nature are increasingly turning their attention toward the Pakistani state itself. On October 24th, 2016 militants from Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) attacked a Pakistani Police Academy in Quetta, killing 61 and wounding over 170. LeJ has its origins as an anti-Shi’ite mob, consisting of Sunni hardliners who feared that the Shi’ite minority constituted a threat to the Pakistani state. The group, which also maintains contacts with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, al-Qaeda, and the Pakistani Taliban has carried out numerous attacks against Pakistani security forces since being banned in 2001. However, the attack in Quetta was the first time LeJ and Islamic State both claimed responsibility, by some counts in collaboration.

The Islamic State has made its presence known in South Asia since January 2015, when spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani declared the province (wilayah) of “Khorasan,” a reference to an ancient province of the Persian Empire consisting of contemporary Afghanistan, Eastern Iran, and parts of Pakistan. It remains unclear what the exact relationship between Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Islamic State is, however a common fixation on sectarian issues does not bode well for Pakistan. The first attack the Islamic State launched independently (as far as has been reported) in Pakistan was decidedly sectarian in nature - the targeting of a bus carrying mostly Ismaili (a sub-sect of Shia) passengers in Karachi in May 2015, resulting in the deaths of more than 43 people.

The Islamic State has made the targeting of Shia, Ahmediyyas, Yazidi, and other minority sects in Islam much more of a priority than have previous global Jihadist groups (which more often seek to convert the ‘heretics’ rather than kill them). The recent spike in sectarian violence in Pakistan therefore presents the Islamic State with a golden opportunity for expansion. This can take the form of direct territorial growth, increased recruitment, or newfound influence. Factions (or disaffected leaders of) established South Asian jihadist groups have been observed declaring allegiance to the Islamic State, often as a means of staying relevant in an environment where large Islamist movements are already well established. Environments wherein it is difficult to move up the ranks. For example, Hafiz Saeed Khan, a former senior leader of the Pakistani Taliban, was declared the first leader of the Islamic State in Khorasan in January 2015, having previously been marginalized by other Taliban leaders. He is widely believed to have been killed in a U.S. drone strike in January 2016, but this is yet to be independently confirmed as of the time of this writing. The shift in domestic Islamist sympathies toward the Islamic State may well serve to further harden Islamabad’s pro-Assad resolve, despite Pakistan’s long history of working with militant Islamist actors throughout South Asia.

Terrorist Enclaves: A Common Dilemma Leading to a Common Understanding?

Likewise contributing to Pakistan’s pro-Assad stance is the fact that the Pakistani Taliban (Tariq e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP) has long been outspoken in its support for the Syrian opposition. Significantly, this is not referring to the Islamic State, suggesting that the TTP sees ideological sympathy with the other ‘rebel’ movements in Syria. It could also be an indication of tension with the Islamic State, as the Taliban (both Afghan and Pakistani) are very nationalistic, a fact which runs directly contrary to the globalist priorities of the Islamic State. Such an idea should be kept in mind as this paper continues.

The Pakistani Taliban claims to have sent “hundreds of fighters” to Syria, including a cell of “around 12 information technology experts,” according to BBC Urdu. Interviewing an unnamed Taliban official, BBC reports that “the cell ‘has been established with the help of the Arab fighters who had fought in Afghanistan and have now moved to Syria to take part in the Jihad.’” The continued connections between Arab Jihadists and Pakistani extremists have their origins largely in the anti-Soviet Jihad of the 1980s, and continues to effect Pakistani security strategy today.

The Pakistani security services have accused both the TTP and LeJ of collaborating with al-Qaeda in the past, offering the use of their safe havens in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). As is true in Syria, a large portion of Pakistani territory is under loose (if any) state control, allowing Jihadist elements to operate more-or-less free of harassment.

Like the Afghan Taliban (and for that matter, the Syrian opposition), the Pakistani Taliban is far from a unified organization. Rather, it is a collection of groups which espouse a similar ideology and theology. Pakistani security services, most notably the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), have a long history of working with the Taliban and other Islamist militias when it is in Pakistani national interest. This policy has allowed Pakistan to compensate for its numerical disadvantage vis-à-vis India, using Jihadist actors to pursue geopolitical interests in both Afghanistan and Indian-held Kashmir (maintaining plausible deniability all the while). Despite having worked successfully for years, this policy is now leading to serious domestic repercussions, several of which can help explain Pakistani policy toward Syria. 

Blowback: Consequences and Lessons of Pakistan’s Historical Sectarian Strategy

Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa, in an article titled “Pakistan's Counterterrorism Strategy: Separating Friends from Enemies,” explains that the “Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), have not desisted from attacking the Pakistani army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi and installations of the military’s primary intelligence organization, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)” in response to Pakistani support for the United States, even though Islamabad seemingly ignores Afghan Taliban activity as a matter of course.  Continuing, “Islamabad does not want to start a battle on all fronts and is willing to talk to militant forces that do not attack Pakistan. Pakistan has its definition of good and bad Taliban…” [emphasis added].

What at first glance may seem a contradictory counterterrorism policy is actually rather straightforward when viewed through cynical geopolitical lenses (something always good to keep nearby). In his article, “Pakistan's Record on Terrorism: Conflicted Goals, Compromised Performance,” Ashley J. Tellis describes what he calls “Pakistan’s Four-Part Approach to Counterterrorism,” which draws distinctions between four types of militant actors in the country. These were domestic sectarian groups, anti-Indian groups, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda.

Anti-Indian groups have historically been an effective tool for Pakistan to use in its geopolitical struggle with New Delhi. As was previously mentioned, such groups have been allowed to operate on Pakistani soil so long as all their armed activities occur in India. Pakistani Intelligence is widely believed to actively support groups such as Lashkar e-Taiba and Jaysh el-Muhammad as a means of pursuing Pakistani geopolitical ambitions, especially in the disputed region of Kashmir.

Matters are more complicated when it comes to the other three categories however. Islamabad has remained steadfastly opposed to the Pakistani Taliban, but has worked with the Afghan Taliban for decades as the latter allows Islamabad to project influence into Afghanistan, a country Pakistan considers its ill-defined “strategic depth.” Al-Qaeda has likewise been opposed, but it was far from a top security priority. Sectarian groups were the most problematic, posing a domestic security challenge and offering little potential benefit to the state.   

Tellis quotes Dr. Christine Fair, summarizing the current domestic situation in saying that “the scale of sectarian violence in Pakistan is staggering, with hundreds of people killed or injured in such attacks each year.” Pakistani counterterrorism efforts have historically only been aimed at those groups opposed to the Pakistani state. Militants operating within Pakistan but aimed externally (namely at India or Afghanistan) get close to a free pass, as they are acting in the Pakistani national interest. This rational rationale would seem to explain the support Islamabad offers anti-Indian groups, such as the notorious Lashkar e-Taiba and Jaysh el-Muhammad, which Tellis claims operate in direct coordination with the Pakistani army and Inter-Services Intelligence, even though the latter directly oppose other terrorist actors.

Some parallels can be drawn here with how the Syrian government has worked with Shi’ite, Alawite, and Christian militias. Damascus is ready and willing to work with sectarian actors if it is in the interest of the state, even to the point of being largely dependent on them.

Having long exploited sectarian and religious divides, Pakistan may now be in a position where its security services are losing control for the first time. Pakistani intelligence has made effective use of religious divisions in Indian-held Kashmir for decades, using local Islamist actors to keep India preoccupied and allowing Pakistan room to maneuver. The tensions they have been stoking (or at least taking advantage of) may be migrating back home however, as Islamist true-believers are seldom deterred by national boundaries. The recent uptick in sectarian violence can be interpreted as blowback of the classic kind, and may serve to explain recent (and largely unexpected) foreign policy reversals.

This is a game Pakistan may no longer wish to play. 

A Pakistani-Saudi Divide: Sunni Solidarity No More?

Following the announcement of a proposed Saudi-led Sunni coalition to intervene in Syria, Pakistan stated in no uncertain terms that it would not be participating. “Pakistan has a principled position on the situation in Syria based on respect for territorial integrity and the sovereignty of Syria,” as Foreign Office Spokesman Nafees Zakaria said.  This was the first major foreign policy break between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in decades.

Eventually cooler heads prevailed and Saudi Arabia avoided direct military intervention. According to Aron Lund of the Carnegie Middle East Center however, this was largely due to limited military capabilities on the part of Saudi Arabia, and a lack of popular support for intervention on the part of Riyadh’s would-be partners, namely Turkey and Jordan. Pakistan was not alone in its lack of enthusiasm for Saudi Arabia’s adventurism.

Similarly, Pakistan refused to participate in Saudi Arabia’s Yemen campaign, the ill-fated “Operation Decisive Storm.” As reported by Bruce Riedel in al-Monitor, “in response to a direct face-to-face request from King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud for ground troops and aircraft for the war against Zaydi Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen last month, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took the issue to the Pakistani parliament, which on April 10 unanimously decided to stay out of the war.” Not one Pakistani Member of Parliament voted in favor of sending troops to the Saudi campaign, despite debating the issue for five days.

Interestingly, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reportedly “visited Pakistan during the debate. He met with both Prime Minister Sharif and Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif [emphasis added].” Sharif was quick to reaffirm Pakistani commitment to their partnership with the Kingdom of Saud, indicating that Pakistan is by no means switching sides in regards to the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, but offered no further elaboration on his meeting with the Iranian Foreign Minister.

However, as Riedel himself said, “the episode also raises concerns about Iran's clout in the region. Much of the debate in parliament had been about avoiding further sectarian violence in Pakistan (which is 20% Shiite), which intervention in the war in Yemen would stoke (perhaps with Iranian help)” [emphasis added]. Between this incident and the emergence of the Zeinabiyoun Brigade, Iran certainly does have more influence in (and perhaps over) Pakistan than was previously realized. Some analysts have also raised the possibility that Tehran could serve as a mediator between Islamabad and New Delhi, especially when it comes to the issue of energy security.

The divide over Syria and Yemen also has clear implications for the widely-believed in secret nuclear defense agreement between Islamabad and Riyadh. According to the popular (semi-conspiracy) theory, Pakistan would come to Saudi Arabia’s aid should the latter feel threatened by an Iranian bomb. Pakistani reluctance to contribute conventional military forces to Saudi Arabia’s proxy wars, combined with the success of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, leads some to wonder if Pakistan could be counted on to provide a nuclear defense in the event of direct war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This in turn could motivate the Kingdom of Saud to pursue its own nuclear weapons program. Such a discussion is highly theoretical, and better saved for a separate research paper, but is nevertheless worth considering in this context.

Nationalism over Islamism: Common Factors in the Pakistani and Baathist Models

Numerous observers have noted a growing rift between Islamist actors with global ambitions (such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda) and those with nationalist priorities (such as the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban). The latter type of terrorist actor commonly perceives the former as a threat to their own power in a given region. A similar phenomenon can be observed on the state level.

The Baathist movement, in both its Syrian and Iraqi incarnations, was a driving force behind Arab nationalism and secularism. Derived from the Arabic term for “resurrection” or “resurgence,” Baathism sought to create a pan-Arab state, but in the name of secular nationalism rather than religious identity.

The contemporary Syrian Arab Republic was created in 1961 following a coup by Syrian General (and Baathist) Abd al-Karim al-Nahlawi and has since been the driving force behind Baathism in the Arabic-speaking world. This has been especially true following the destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime by the United States in 2003. The Syrian population may have maintained a Muslim majority, but Islam was only one factor in the formation of a new Syrian national identity which also was inspired by the ancient cultures of the region – especially the Assyrian Empire but also the Babylon Empire and the Phoenician city-states.

Following partition, Pakistan likewise struggled to define itself. Is Pakistan a state for Muslims or a Muslim State?  While everyone agreed that the new country was to serve as a homeland for the Muslims of South Asia, there were no agreed-to theocratic principles by which it was to be governed. Like Syria, Pakistan has always been predominantly Sunni, but with a significant Shia minority. Like Syria, neither the Sunnis nor the Shia are theologically homogenous. Like Syria, Pakistan is home to an ancient Christian community. And like Syria, a minority group has historically been dominant. Pakistan is ruled largely by an urban, Urdu-speaking elite (native speakers of which are only about 10 percent of the population, though it is the lingua-franca for most Pakistani citizens) which were emigres from British India following the drawing of the Radcliffe Line. Syria is ruled by an Alawite elite, which was roughly 12 percent of the Syrian population prior to the start of the Civil War.

How was one to form an inclusive identity in the face of such seemingly inherent divisions?  

The Pakistan Movement (Tehrik-e-Pakistan) was a political-religious movement which ran parallel with independence activism in India in the 1930s and 1940s. It sought to protect the interests of South Asia’s Muslim population after the expected departure of British forces. At this time, Islam was for many a source of cultural and historic identity. The richness of Islamic spirituality and philosophy for which the Pakistan Movement sought a renaissance (much of which was Sufi and of Persian origins) was not the kind of puritanical Wahhabi or Salafi movements of the Arab world.

Muhammad Iqbal, the "Spiritual Father of Pakistan" who is most widely attributed as the inspiration for the Pakistan Movement, sought to simultaneously revive Persian/Urdu metaphysics whilst maintaining positive aspects of Western civilization. Perhaps his most prominent works – “The Development of Metaphysics in Persia” and “The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam” investigated both the religious and largely Persian-derived cultural heritage of South Asian Muslims. Having studied law and philosophy in England, he was even knighted by King George V, henceforth known as Sir Muhammad Iqbal. Writing in both the Urdu and Persian languages, Iqbal was admired as a prominent poet by many cultures and ethnic groups in South Asia, including contemporary Pakistanis, Iranians, Indians, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, and even Western scholars of the region.

Under this Pakistani model Islam was still a driving force, but did work against either the native cultures of the region – Punjabi, Urdu, Balochi, Pashtun, etc. or against some Western influences. Understood in this way, Pakistan and Syria can be seen to have several parallels. Both were populated by devout Muslims, but both also drew upon ancient cultures in the formation of new national identities. Such a trend runs in direct contrast to the sectarian and Arab-centric strategies of Saudi Arabia.

Conclusion

From the beginning of the Civil War in 2011, Pakistan has shown consistent support for Bashar al-Assad and his government. Despite protests from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United States, Pakistan’s historic security partners (not to mention from domestic Islamist hardliners), Islamabad has stood steadfast in this approach. This fact is primarily derived from Islamabad’s fear of a greater sectarian rift at home, seeing the parallels between its current situation and pre-War Syrian society.

The subject of Pakistani policy toward the Arab world, especially outside the Gulf countries, remains severely understudied in the West. Though limited in scope, this project hoped to serve as an introduction to this wider field.

Researchers with native-level language abilities in Urdu, Punjabi, Pashtun, Arabic, or Farsi could (and should) take this research much farther. This language barrier was one of the biggest limitations in researching the topic of Pakistani-Syrian relations, as this author is not proficient in any of the above. While many primary sources coming from South Asia are indeed published in English, this is hardly the primary language used by Jihadists, either in Pakistan or in Syria. Additionally, given the recent and ever-changing nature of the war in Syria, scholarly sources upon which to draw were limited. This fact necessitated the use of news articles and scholarly materials which were somewhat outdated and about related but different subjects. Furthermore, given the limited scope of this paper, the subject of Pakistani policy toward the war in Yemen was handled with more brevity than was desired. This topic would likewise make for a good research paper, should any of the readers (especially those with proficiency in Yemeni Arabic) choose to pursue it.

Pakistani national identity has thus far proven itself to be a greater influence than religious fundamentalism. This fact has been demonstrated in Islamabad’s refusal to join Saudi Arabian efforts in both Syria and Yemen. In this respect, Pakistan is participating in a resurgence of national identities throughout much of the Islamic world, part of a broader reaction against globalist Jihadism and other pan-Islamic modes of thought. Egypt under General Sisi, Lebanon under Michel Aoun, and the Russian Republic of Chechnya under Ramzan Kadyrov have all likewise asserted national heritage over hardcore Islamism, and have been opposed by militants as a result. Such a topic would be better served as a PhD dissertation, but is worthy of consideration as part of the closing remarks of this paper.

On the 24 September 2016, Russia and Pakistan made history with their first ever joint military exercise. Dubbed “Friendship 2016,” the exercise consisted of a series of wargames in the Khyber province of Pakistan’s mountainous northwest. The drills consisted of around 200 soldiers practicing counterinsurgency operations. Though never stated as intent, “Friendship 2016” carried great symbolic significance. Having been Cold War adversaries, Pakistan and Russia are now willing and able to work together. Such a development would have been unthinkable had Pakistan not persistently supported Assad, Moscow’s long-term ally. As was previously stated, the war in Syria has made some strange bedfellows, and challenged the conventional geopolitical wisdom of the Middle East and South Asia. Western analysts and researchers would be wise to pay closer attention to these dynamics, as exercises like the above stand to influence national security policy for years to come. 

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons