ISLAMABAD - With a broad Sunni Muslim bloc of countries lining up against an emergingShi'ite crescent in the Middle East, Sunni-majority and nuclear-armed Pakistan could play an important - albeit somewhat reluctant - role.
A step in this direction is Pakistan's decision to keep two army divisions on standby for deployment to Saudi Arabia in the event of trouble there. This followed a visit by Saudi Prince and secretary general of the National Security Council Prince Bandar Bin Sultan to Pakistan.
Earlier, Pakistan's Fauji Foundation, an armed forces entity, organized the recruitment of over 1,000 ex-army personnel for service in Bahrain's National Guard. The small Persian Gulfstate, which is headquarters to the United States 5th Fleet, is
suppressing protests with the help of Saudi invasion forces. Bahrain's ruling elite is Sunni, although about 70% of the population is Shi'ite.
The advertisement for Pakistanis to join Bahrain's National Guard was published about three weeks ago in a mass-circulation Urdu-language newspaper. Since then, the process of recruitment has continued unabated.
According to investigations by Asia Times Online, the recruits have been promised 100,000 Pakistani rupees (US$1,174) a month, beside other perks including free medical and accommodation. People with names that have a traditional Shi'ite ring - such as Syed, Abbas, Ali and Hussain - are being overlooked.
Iranian media have broadcast stories predicting a strong Pakistani role in the Gulf region; this resulted in Iranian-sponsored agitators in Bahrain killing several Pakistani workers for "collaborating with the Sunni rulers of Bahrain".
A calibrated response
A senior Pakistani politician and a former member of the senate who is known for his closeness to the military establishment told Asia Times Online on the condition of anonymity that immediately after the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings earlier this year, Pakistan carefully positioned itself both domestically and at the diplomatic level to act as a "frontline state" for Sunni Islam.
In another sense, Pakistan has been a frontline state in the "war on terror" ever since the invasion of Afghanistan and the ouster of the Taliban in 2001 - an uneasy role at the best of times.
In backroom moves, the military briefed rightwing political parties - including the Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan, the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam, the Pakistan Muslim League Q, Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf and the Jamaatut Dawa - on what is believed will be a showdown within the Muslim world.
Exactly at this time, Pakistan's powerful foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, from the spiritual Qureshi family of Multan - the all-season favorite of the Pakistani military establishment whose changing political allegiances have always directed the course ofPakistan's political history - suddenly resigned.
He then began a powerful campaign against his own leaders in the ruling Pakistan People's Party. After a long break, Pakistan's military establishment and the old bloc of pro-establishment political parties were on the same page.
This time, though, the aim was not a military takeover but a future positioning for Pakistan.
This development had a trickle-down effect in the insurgent-hit tribal areas, where militants held their fire against the Pakistan army (a partial ceasefire agreement was already in place).
In this whole situation, restive Balochistan province, where a separatist movement festers, remains the only problem if Pakistan becomes involved in the Middle East crisis. The province is adjacent to Iran and has always been amenable to Iranian intervention.
Backchannel talks on Turkey's position are the most important component before Pakistanjumps into the Middle East crisis. Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party had been in favor of the Arab uprisings, but the Libyan crisis has forced Ankara to think again.
Libya is now a haven for militancy in North Africa and the Middle East. Like all Sunni Muslim states, Turkey is dedicated to working for the supremacy of the Sunni orthodoxy that ensures the maintenance of the current regime.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which had been suppressed in Libya, has sprung up as a strong and organized political force and is actively collaborating with the Jamiat al-Muqatala, an armed opposition group that is not shy to show its affiliation with al-Qaeda.
Strengthened with looted weapons of the Libyan armed forces, these Islamists have apparently smuggled a large cache of weapons to Tunisia and Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood and its sympathizers of armed groups have also re-emerged.
Recently, former military intelligence colonel Abdul al-Zamar and a relative, former majorTariq al-Zamar, who were arrested in September 1981 over a failed coup against the regime of president Anwar Sadat, only 10 days before his assassination, were released along with several top leaders of the Jamaat al-Jihad (led by al-Qaeda deputy Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri) after strong popular demand on the streets of Cairo and other cities.
In this quagmire, Iranian-influenced Shi'ite Islam will play a big part. Significantly, it could influence Turkey's Nusayri population (self-proclaimed Shi'ites), who, according to some estimates, make of 18% of the population. Along with Iranian-sponsored Kurdish rebels inTurkey, the Nusayri have always been a potential threat for Turkey. The Turkish army, aflagbearer for Sunni Islam, has built many Sunni mosques in far-flung villages in an attempt to drown out the Nusayris.
Following the Saudi-supported agitation in Syria, the Iranian-sponsored proxy war in theMiddle East is likely to gather speed, and first Pakistan and then Turkey are likely to play a proactive role on the side of Saudi Arabia to retain the supremacy of Sunni Islam in the Arab world.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief and author of upcoming book Inside al-Qaeda and the Taliban, beyond 9/11 published by Pluto Press, UK. He can bereached at firstname.lastname@example.org