Bashar al-Assad has managed not only to survive throughout the Syrian Civil War, but to stage a revival of his regime. Arab nations have resumed diplomatic relations with Damascus and readmitted the regime to the Arab League.
But even throughout the tumult of war, Syria always maintained one ally that resisted the international pressure to isolate it: Pakistan.
Islamabad refused to align with the anti-Assad movement. It repeatedly opposed any foreign intervention to topple the regime. This ongoing loyalty to Baathist Syria stems from an enduring, complex, and intriguing relationship built on historical legacies. Unlike its alliance with the United States, which has often hinged on counterterrorism and military aid, or its all-weather friendship with China, which pivots around the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, Pakistan’s connection with Syria has its origins in the historical alliance of two ruling dynasties — the Bhuttos of Pakistan and the Assads of Syria.
Ties Born in Times of Chaos
Seizing power after the country’s tenth coup in seventeen years, Hafez al-Assad became prime minister of Syria in November 1970. He marked the start of the Assad family’s unyielding five-decade hold on the Syrian presidency four months later. Meanwhile, in December 1971, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto became the first member of the Bhutto family to reach Pakistan’s highest office, replacing Yahya Khan as chief martial law administrator and president, and later becoming prime minister.
Over the next six years, before Bhutto fell victim to a coup, the two men forged a deep friendship, bringing their countries closer as a result.
The alliance that flourished between Hafez al-Assad and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto would endure through generations of Bhuttos and Assads, and it is still playing out today. Since foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari entered his Pakistan People’s Party into a coalition government with the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, he appears to be opening the door to increased dialogue with Syria once more. In doing so, he risks reintroducing a dynamic that has historically had a detrimental impact on Pakistan’s internal security and puts the country at odds with members of the international community, including the United States.
A Friendship Cut Short
At the start of their tenures, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Hafez al-Assad built their strong relationship on a series of similarities. Both men hailed from minority groups, within Islam and within their respective countries. Assad’s presidency marked the end of Sunni rule in Syria, with the new leader becoming the first president of Alawite faith, an offshoot of Shiism that represented 15% of the population at the time.
Likewise, Shiites historically made up a similar percentage of the population in Pakistan. While a Shiite had ruled the country prior to the 1970s, Bhutto was the first ethnic Sindh to become leader of Pakistan, which had been dominated by Punjabis and Pashtuns. Bhutto’s wife, Nusrat, was also a Shiite Muslim, a fact that attracted controversy in Pakistan.
As for their respective domestic situations, both leaders assumed office at times of significant instability. Coups and counter-coups fueled by sectarianism plagued the Syrian military and ruling elite throughout the 1960s. In Pakistan, Bhutto came to power following two calamitous wars fought by his country, first against India in 1965 and then against India and its own breakaway East in 1971. The latter resulted in the severing of East Pakistan from West Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh.
Military defeats did not dissuade Pakistan from offering support to Assad on the eve of the 1973 war with Israel. Hoping to regain lost territory from the 1967 Six-Day War and legitimize his new regime in the eyes of his people, the Syrian president was keen to join forces with his Egyptian counterpart, Anwar Sadat, and launch an offensive into land newly conquered by Israel. Owing to the country’s longstanding position on the Palestine issue, Pakistan had already provided much-needed support to the Arab cause in 1967, but this predated Bhutto’s and Assad’s ascents to power. Thus, the show of solidarity from Pakistan in 1973, a direct response to Assad’s request for military assistance, did much to bind the two leaders. Not only did Pakistani pilots volunteer to fight alongside the Arab contingent, but the Pakistani army was also deployed to protect Damascus from a potential Israeli invasion.
This burgeoning relationship continued during peacetime. A year after the Arab-Israeli stalemate, Assad was pictured by Bhutto’s side in Lahore for the second Islamic Cooperation Summit. The parallels in the pair’s worldview were evident. Assad saw similarities between the ostensibly left-leaning politics of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party and those pursued by the Arab Socialist Baathist parties to which he belonged. Bhutto would also have earned admiration from Assad for his attempts to distance Pakistan from the West and his willingness to reach out to the Soviet Union and China.
In 1977, Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq overthrew Bhutto’s government in a coup d’état, and Assad implored the general to spare his close friend’s life. Such pleas fell on deaf ears, and the former president was hanged on April 4, 1979. The event had a cataclysmic effect on Syria-Pakistan relations, and the goodwill Bhutto had earned from Assad did not remain with the South Asian country once Bhutto was gone. Instead, the Syrian president, intent on punishing Zia, provided sanctuary to Bhutto’s two sons, Murtaza and Shahnawaz. It also nurtured Al-Zulfiqar, a clandestine militant outfit established by the young Bhuttos with the sole intention of avenging their father’s death.
The group staged a hijacking of Pakistan International Airlines flight 326 from Karachi to Peshawar in 1981, landing it first in Kabul, and then receiving a state reception in Damascus. The ill treatment afforded to the Pakistani delegation sent to negotiate the release of those on board the flight laid bare Assad’s disdain for the new regime in Islamabad and his indifference toward ordinary Pakistanis now that his ally was gone.
The 1970s therefore saw Syria and Pakistan connected solely by the friendship of their two leaders, a friendship that was underpinned largely by what Bhutto could do for Assad. The relationship brought little long-term benefit to the Pakistani people, a fact most comprehensively demonstrated by the ease with which Assad could facilitate terrorism against the country once Bhutto had been killed. Equally, Pakistan’s new military dictator had no intention to repair ties with Syria until the latter years of his presidency.
Although Assad and Zia normalized relations in 1987, the Pakistani general was killed soon after in a mysterious explosion aboard his military aircraft. Assad then enthusiastically championed Benazir Bhutto, who dramatically returned to Pakistan after years in exile and successfully contested the 1988 Pakistani parliamentary elections. Despite Pakistan’s own internal political machinations, and interference from the military, Bhutto sought to maintain ties with Assad during her second stint as prime minister of Pakistan. In 1996, she made a landmark visit to Syria to meet with Assad, accompanied by her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, a Shiite Muslim whose later presidency would be of great value to Hafez’s son, Bashar al-Assad.
A Much-Needed Enabler
Just one year prior to the Arab Spring, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, widower of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto, visited Bashar al-Assad to express his country’s condolences for the death of the Syrian president’s brother. The pair agreed to enhance cooperation between their two countries, thus reviving the Bhutto-Assad connection that had served Bashar’s father so well.
As protests and demonstrations swept across the Arab world in 2011, Assad displayed a savage will to avoid the same fate of many of his fellow Middle Eastern autocrats. The indiscriminate killing of peaceful protesters in the months that followed attracted widespread outrage from the international community, although the United Nations faced difficulties in issuing a resolution condemning the violence. One such obstacle to this end was Pakistan, which not only maintained a discreet silence over the unfolding events in Syria, but sought to hinder any UN resolutions regarding the country.
Undoubtedly due to their families’ historical links, Zardari was willing to risk making his own country a pariah in order to stand by Assad. The Pakistani president also pursued a policy of appeasement toward Iran, with both countries sharing their support for the Assad regime. These relationships with Shiite-led governments all developed while Zardari maintained the Bhutto tradition of downplaying his own family’s religious beliefs. Neither Zulfiqar nor Benazir had made Shiism a key part of their political outlook. They sought to avoid alienating Pakistan’s Sunni majority and to ease opportunities to pursue relations with Riyadh. This trend has continued under the current Pakistani government, led in part by Benazir’s son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and has gone even further by effectively outlawing Shiite beliefs with a new amendment passed earlier this year.
Pakistan continued to enable Assad’s tyrannical rule in Syria after Zardari was replaced as president in 2013. This led to some feeling that the new Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, was pandering to the Shiite minority — the very appearance the Bhuttos had sought to evade by diminishing their own religious identity. In actuality, Pakistan knew that continued indifference toward Syria would boost its reputation among Assad’s most powerful allies, Russia and China.
Furthermore, while neither Zardari nor Sharif would have contemplated sending Pakistani men to bolster the Syrian military in the same way that Zulfiqar did in 1973, the reality was that Pakistani Shiites did in fact join pro-Assad forces. With considerable help from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Pakistani Shiites were recruited to fight alongside the Syrian army in the Zeinabiyoun unit, named after a granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad.
Thus, even as the world seemed to turn its back on Assad after the outbreak of the Arab Spring, the Syrian president leaned on his familial ties to the Bhuttos to push Pakistan to ignore his war crimes. The ardent defense of Syria extends across all branches of the Bhutto family. Fatima Bhutto, the daughter of Murtaza, is a prominent Pakistani author and columnist who spent time growing up in Syria under the protection of the Assads and has written nostalgically about the country that gave her father sanctuary.
Even after Zardari left office in 2013, the legacy left by the Bhutto family regarding Syria made it difficult for the incoming Sharif regime to change Pakistan’s course. Yet, while the Assads and Syria have reaped military and diplomatic rewards from their long association with the Bhuttos, Pakistan has not been as fortunate. The relationship has come at a high human and reputational cost to the country. Bilawal did not allow reports that the Assad regime had bombed areas of Syria affected by this year’s devastating earthquakes to derail this friendship, reaffirming his family’s steadfast loyalty to the Assads with a visit to the Syrian Embassy shortly thereafter. Pakistan can also enjoy a brief respite from Saudi pressure regarding relations with Syria, in light of news that Riyadh is seeking to rebuild ties with Damascus.
Marcus Andreopoulos is a senior research fellow at the international policy assessment group, the Asia-Pacific Foundation, as well as a subject matter expert for the Global Threats Advisory Group at NATO DEEP. Marcus is an incoming PhD candidate in the international history department at the London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE),
Dr. Sajjan M. Gohel is the International Security Director at the Asia-Pacific Foundation, Visiting Teacher at the London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE), and Chairman of NATO DEEP’s Global Threats Advisory Group. He is also the Editor of NATO’s Counter-Terrorism Reference Curriculum.