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China’s Role in the Syria Crisis

Apr 19 , 2017
  • Wang Zhen

    Director of Security Studies Program, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

Since the Syria crisis broke out in 2011, China has been keeping a low profile on the issue; hence, the role played by China was under-appreciated. Recent US military strikes against Syria represent renewed and higher tension in Syria, and also underlines the important role played by China on the issue.

On the evening of April 6, US warships fired missiles against the Shayrat airbase of Syria from the Mediterranean Sea. The attack coincided with President Xi Jinping’s meeting with President Trump at Mar-a-lago, and by accident or by design, the US borrowed Chinese weight in its military operation. In addition, the timing would mitigate critics from China against the unilateral US military operation as the Chinese leader was being hosted by his US counterpart. Otherwise, as seen in the past, China would state its criticism unequivocally.

In one of my previous articles, it was explained that there have been primarily two camps at play in Syria, the anti-Assad camp was led by the US, supported by European and Middle East allies, and the supporters of Assad and his pro-Shiite government, a camp led by Russia and supported by Iran, Iraq and Hizbollah. Due to its oscillating policies, the Obama administration missed the opportunity to gain an advantage in Syria. Militarily, with the assistance of Russia, President Assad has gained the upper hand and made further advances, and any military attempt to topple the Assad government may lead to a direct clash with Russia.

On the political front, the US has not been able to nurture a viable alternative to Assad, and had little leeway at its disposal but sit on the sidelines while Russia calls the shots. In the meanwhile, the US is unable to build a strong coalition to deal with the issue. European countries are heavily preoccupied with and divided by the evolving refugee crisis and frequent outbreak of terrorist attacks. Relations between Turkey and the US were strained after the failed coup in 2016 and the just-completed constitutional referendum in Turkey. Gulf countries are at odds with the US over anti-terrorism and oil production policies. In sum, Russia is now in the driver’s seat both on the military and political fronts, and the US is torn between its reluctance to get involved in Syria’s civil conflicts, its efforts to support the anti-government forces and its anti-terrorism military objectives in the region. The latest military attack by the US might well embolden the anti-government forces and pose a drag on the political process, but it falls short of reversing the situation on the ground, still less offering a viable solution to solve the crisis once and for all.

China does not have any ambitious agenda on the Syria issue, and pursues a pragmatic and low profile approach, hence its under-appreciated role in the process. But as the political solution process reaches a critical tipping point, China’s role becomes more and more prominent. On the one hand, with Russia and the US locked in a stalemate, China’s policy of peace and independence emerges as an important recourse. The Trump administration would find China’s sympathy or understanding of the US position will mitigate criticism against it from within China, and smooth the path for a US sponsored resolution to be adopted at the UN. China also plays a central brokering role among categorically divergent solutions. In the meantime, China could contribute to maintaining stability and restoring order in post-conflict Syria. A case in point is that in 2007, after the conflict between Israel and Hizbollah ended, China sent a 1000 strong peacekeeping force on a mission to Southern Lebanon in order to ease Arab opposition to military deployment by Western countries alone.

China has not made any rebuke over US military operation against Syria. Pending the outcome of an independent investigation of the alleged “use of chemical weapons”, China will not render unconditional support to the US position. Admittedly, China and the US have different positions on the issue, but they share many common interests too, including restoring peace and stability in the region, cracking down on extremists and rebuilding regional order and the balance of power in the Middle East. The countries differ over how to achieve these goals. That is at the heart of their differences. Chinese people, by nature, place a premium on harmony and peace, and avoid use of force as the solution to any foreign policy issues. When all other means are exhausted, military means should also be fully justified and be morally tenable. This mindset is embedded in Chinese culture based on its own experiences as a nation. Should the Trump administration come to appreciate this mindset of China, it will help the US in solving the ongoing crisis in Syria.

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