China steps into the Syrian saga

China’s Adm Guan Youfei’s recent visit to Syria was a diplomatic maneuver to counter-balance US’ military and political provocations in South China Sea region. But although China’s advisors are already on the ground in Syria to train the regime forces in the use of its weapons, it will not commit warplanes or ground forces in the conflict to end up having more enemies than friends in the Middle East region.

The recent visit of China’s Rear Adm Guan Youfei to Syria may be a small step amid the ongoing conflict but will have a big influence on the outcome of talks to be held to end the crisis.

Guan Youfei

In this file photo, China’s Rear Adm. Guan Youfei salutes to welcome then U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel upon arriving at Qingdao International Airport in Qingdao, China

The ‘Chinese factor’, as it looks, is set to create diplomatic and political pressure on various fronts than sending warplanes to bomb IS and other terror outfits.

The move comes at a time when Russia and Iran have boosted their own military campaigns in Syria.

Amid Russia continuing its bombing on IS targets and Iran announcing the formation and deployment of a “Liberation Army” in Syria, as also in Yemen, China’s entry on the side of Assad implies that he has got on-board a ‘friend’ forced into this conflict because of its own security concerns.

China’s primary motivation is the presence of Uyghur militants operating in Syria who, if the global supporters of these groups manage to topple Assad’s government, will have a staging ground closer to Iran, southern Russia and western China. An alliance among the three countries, therefore, does make sense.

“China and Syria’s militaries have a traditionally friendly relationship, and China’s military is willing to keep strengthening exchanges and cooperation with Syria’s military,” said Rear Adm Guan Youfei, director of the Office for International Military Cooperation of China’s Central Military Commission, during his most recent visit to China.

The cooperation also includes China’s recent pledge to provide “humanitarian assistance” to the Syrian people as well as military support for Syrian government troops in their fight to restore order nationwide.

The Global Times, a paper published by the ruling Communist Party, said advisors are already on the ground in Syria to train regime forces in the use of Chinese-bought weapons including sniper rifles, rocket launchers, and machine guns.

On a wider regional scale, China’s entry alongside Russia and Iran does indicate how, at some point in future, a military block—or a regional anti-terrorism entity—might come into existence to counter the fast spreading threats of ‘global terrorism.’

Although it seems to be global, and many would say that Europe has been attacked quite a few times, the fact cannot be gainsaid that Iran, Russia and China’s territorial proximity to the ‘theatre of terrorism’ does makes them more vulnerable and also provides them the logic to establish such a block.

Michael Maloof, a former Pentagon official, thus explained to Russia Today in an interview what China’s entry in Syria implies, “China and Russia are prominent members of what is called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO]. Iran wants to become a member. That’s 17 countries in all that are either prominent members, or partners, which also include Turkey, Iran, India, Pakistan and countries in Central Asia. It’s a large organization,” he said.

“The SCO – while it’s economic in nature – has become more of a counter-terrorism entity. And that’s where the Chinese feel that they need to be. But it also reflects the fact that the SCO gives them a greater presence and influence in the Middle East along with Russia and Iran”, he said.

 However, notwithstanding the low profile commitments China has made, how far Beijing intends going militarily remains to be seen. It has its own terrorist problem. It’s threatened by US regional provocations, notably in the South China Sea. Its government reportedly sent dozens of military advisors to Syria last year to aid in the fight against terrorism, stopping short of committing warplanes and/or ground forces.

Whether Guan’s visit will lead to more direct military involvement depends on how the war itself unfolds in the crisis.  However, it is quite obvious that the U.S. and its allies would feel the pressure of China’s overt presence on and off the war-zone in Syria and elsewhere too.

On the other hand, what we should not lose sight of is that China sources about half of its oil and gas from the Middle East, mostly from Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, which back opposing sides in the multi-sided conflict.

Beijing is unlikely to risk alienating any of those powers by becoming militarily involved in the conflict whereby China may end up having more enemies than friends in the region.

Given this, the Chinese rear admiral’s recent visit to Syria can also be read as a diplomatic maneuver to counter-balance US’ military and political provocations in South China Sea region.

A diplomatic poke as it looks in the eye of the US, China’s presence does nevertheless mean that the US’ regional allies in the Middle East will be under pressure conducting ‘war business’ with one of the major investors they probably have to modernize their ‘petro-economy.’

This being the case, Russia and Iran, as also Turkey now, may try to utilize the ‘Chinese factor’ to put pressure on Saudi Arabia and its allies to stop funding terror groups in Syria and elsewhere in the region.

Given Saudi Arabia’s (poor) internal economic situation, its troubled relations with the U.S., and the fact that it is currently the second biggest supplier of oil to China after Russia, it may not be able to confront China to an extent where an important buyer may start looking for other options.

Were such a scenario to take place, the U.S. may find itself, what some analysts have called, significantly “sidelined” in the Middle East.

With Russian forces and China indicating “military assistance” to Assad, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states are now at a greater disadvantage vis-a-vis their arch rival, Tehran.

As such, should China be forced deeper into the conflict amid non-stop supply of weapons and funds to terror groups from Arab states, this may compound the already tenuous position of these countries in the region further, forcing the Russia-Iran-China coalition to liquidate terror groups and their peripheral networks beyond Syria’s battlefields.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com

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