China Steps Up in Syria

The conventional picture of US policy in the Middle East is of a hellbound train rushing toward war with Iran, pulling burning coaches filled with European passengers howling praise of Western values out the windows at horrified bystanders.  Actually, I think it’s more like a monster truck exhibition.  Lots of sound, fury, testosterone, and bravado, but just spinning wheels, spewing mud, roaring in circles, and going nowhere.

What is very interesting is that China, usually an apostle of non-interference, believes it has something to contribute to the Syrian situation, probably for two reasons: 1) it needs to road-test some new approaches to managing and accommodating dissent in anticipation of the day when Arab-Spring type upheavals become an important factor in China and 2) the current situation is so screwed up the Chinese feel they can make a genuine contribution.

Though Russia has the lead role as defender of the Syrian regime, China has been following the situation closely.  One of the appendixes to the infamously suppressed Arab League report on Syria listed representatives of foreign media who had been allowed into the country; a large number of them were Chinese, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them, as Xinhua is known to do, were wearing intel hats in addition to their journalist roles.

Interestingly, the Angry Arab news service noted an interview Al Jazeera Arabic did with China’s Foreign Ministry desk officer for Syria and remarked: “ His Arabic is as good as the best Arabic speakers.  It is incredible.  I never ever met an American diplomat with this fluency.  I mean that.  And his pronunciation is so excellent that it carries no trace of a Chinese accent.”

Maybe the Chinese—highly dependent on Saudi and Iranian oil, with a government apparatus largely insulated from global and Israeli pressure, and providing generous human and financial resources to a foreign service designed to help China navigate through a dangerous neighborhood without the crutch of a dominating military presence—knows the Middle East better than we do?

For the sake of American peace of mind, maybe we’d better stick to the image of the PRC team as amoral, callous, resource-grubbing apparatchiks who know the address of every Chinese restaurant in the Middle East but little else.

Anyway, Syria represents an interesting case in the dynamics of great power diplomacy and rivalry in the Middle East.  My take on the situation is that the United States is willing to let the GCC chew up Syria as a consolation prize for not going all out on regime change against Iran.  China, I feel, has a diametrically opposite mindset: it thinks it has placated Saudi Arabia adequately on Iran (mainly by hosing Iran on energy pricing and not stepping up in a major way to crack the sanctions blockade that is beggaring the Iran’s economy and its citizens), so they feel they have the right to be treated as grown-ups with ideas worth listening to on Syria.

Since the West believes it has a monopoly on moral and political wisdom, that’s probably not going to happen.  But it’s interesting that the Chinese are trying.

According to the authoritarian playbook preferred by China, Syria’s President Assad is doing the right things: driving a wedge between the “loyal opposition” to his rule and hard-core rebels and revolutionaries through the use of targeted amnesties and concessions; forcefully isolating and suppressing violent political dissenters; incrementally escalating the use of military force to regain control of militia-held strongholds like Homs; and offering a way out with a new constitution.

Perhaps he has done the right things, but not in the right way; or perhaps not enough.  As the harsh crackdown approaching its first-year anniversary, the Assad regime has profoundly alienated a significant portion of its population.  Reconciliation and stability is going to take more than a new constitution, delivered with a pat on the head and an apology from the government.

A necessary and dangerous process of accommodation and power sharing will be needed.

China perhaps has grasped this point even more clearly than Russia, or the Assad regime itself.  As Syria and Western/Arab policy on Syria lurch from crisis to crisis, China may watch for opportunities to advance its strategy.

This weekend, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun will visit Damascus to try to create some space for a “third path” political strategy, one that eschews both regime change and perpetuation of the status quo for a process of evolutionary reform keyed on the new constitution.

The draft Syrian constitution is a multi-faceted political document.  It accommodates a multi-party system, addressing a key grievance of many moderate Syrians, but still offers the Ba’ath Party various advantages.  It outlaws “religion-based parties,” in order to wrong-foot  Assad’s mortal enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood, but stipulates that the president must be a Muslim, in order to appease conservative Muslims.

Assad has announced a referendum on the new constitution will be held on February 26.

It would be very interesting to see how the constitutional referendum played out, and what level of support the government could still command after a heavy-handed one year crackdown.

But it is unlikely that Assad’s enemies inside the country, in the West, the Gulf Coordinating Council (GCC), and Turkey will allow the Syrian government to use the referendum to buttress its legitimacy and demonstrate a capacity to guide the nation out of its political impasse.

As is inevitably the case, any effort by the Syrian regime to gain political-reform traction was met with determined “it’s too late/atrocity of the day” propaganda pushback designed to pre-empt any impetus toward reconciliation.

Even as the referendum was announced, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland (the wife of neo-con Robert Kagan and previously a national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney) stated that Assad’s departure was the only viable option; a WINEP pundit dismissed the referendum as “window dressing”; CNN reported “the vast majority of accounts from within the country say that al-Assad’s forces are slaughtering civilians en masse”; and Western media uncritically passed on the opposition’s idiotic accusation that the Syrian air force had bombed the government’s  own diesel pipeline (which somebody, presumably of the aggressively violent opposition whose existence the West stubbornly refuses to acknowledge, apparently blew up).

Assad’s announcement of the pushed up date for the referendum (it was originally expected to happen in March) was probably a response to the latest escalation in regime-change activity, the “Friends of Syria” conference to be convened in Tunisia on February 24.

Assad’s foreign antagonists, deprived by a Russian/Chinese veto of the opportunity to further delegitimize the Assad regime through the UN Security Council, will use the Tunisian conference to formalize a case for humanitarian intervention in Syria—a moral imperative that justifies, even demands disregard for conflicting demands of treaties and international institutions when necessary–under the “responsibility to protect” or R2P doctrine similar to the one used for Libya.

In a parting gift to the anti-Assad forces,UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay raised the specter of a International Criminal Court indictment against Assad, of the sort which complicated the situation in Sudan, closed the door on a negotiated exit for Gaddafi, and would make any sort of negotiation with Assad virtually impossible.

The Fact-Finding Mission, the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, and I myself have all concluded that crimes against humanity are likely to have been committed in Syria. I have encouraged the Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court. All Member States must ensure that these crimes do not go unpunished. 

Pillay also issued a demand for humanitarian access that could form the cornerstone of West/GCC justifications for Syrian intervention:

International and independent monitoring bodies, including my Office and the independent Commission of Inquiry must also be allowed into Syria. And humanitarian actors must be guaranteed immediate, unhindered access. [emphasis in original]

There will be no “no-fly zone” for Syria; Assad has assiduously and, one would imagine, intentionally, avoided the use of air transport and air support in his security operations, thereby denying a pretext for the West and GCC to come in with a “no-fly zone,” which in Libya quickly morphed into a “no drive zone” and then into an “attack any government target of tactical or strategic value zone”.

To get around this obstacle, if the French have their way, humanitarian intervention would involve creating a “humanitarian corridor” to deliver food and medical supplies to Homs, thereby driving a stake through the heart of the Syrian regime’s claim to legitimacy and national sovereignty and energizing the opposition…at least that portion of the opposition whose strategy relies on foreign intervention to collapse the Assad regime.

In the western media, only the Syrian National Council, or SNC, exists as the voice of Syrian opposition.  The real situation is considerably more complicated and opposition to Assad is by no means typified by the SNC.

In fact it is a remarkable testament to the bankruptcy of the West/GCC’s Syria policy that the horse they have chosen to back is, to a large extent, a corrupt congeries of exiles with virtually no presence inside Syria and dominated by the Sunni Islamist militants of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that has languished in exile for almost three decades.

At the end of January, 2012, Foreign Policy’s Justin Vela wrote:

A wide range of activists and diplomats are voicing concerns with the SNC, criticizing its lack of cohesion and effectiveness. While the majority of them have not given up on the council, they paint a picture of an organization out of touch with the protesters on the ground and dominated by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

“No one from the SNC has influence inside Syria. Most members of the SNC are jumping on a train that started from the street,” says Ammar Qurabi, a Syrian human rights activist…

The most divisive issue surrounding the SNC, however, clearly remains the prominent role played by the Muslim Brotherhood. “The Muslim Brotherhood is the only party in town,” says the Ankara-based Western diplomat.

The Brothers have been exiled from Syria for 30 years after losing a bitter armed conflict with the regime in the 1980s, and some activists distrust its outlook on democracy and the future composition of a post-Assad government…

It appears that the Brotherhood’s insistence on overthrowing the Assad government is informed by its awareness that, whatever feelings Assad has about accommodating the aspirations of democratically-inspired dissidents, they do not extend to the MB.

The Brotherhood’s best hope for a major, indeed dominant political role inside Syria requires regime collapse and the exploitation of the MB’s superior discipline and organization in the ensuing chaos to establish itself as the voice of conservative, orthodox Sunni Islam (the dominant confession in Syria) as their associates did so successfully (and to the chagrin of many secularly-inclined liberals) in Egypt.

Despite its lack of a Syrian presence and its apparently sectarian character, the SNC has been recognized as “the legitimate interlocutor of the Syrian people” by 16 governments, including the United States, several EU countries, and several Arab states.

Reading between the lines, however, most countries are anxiously trying to reconcile their desire to see Assad fall with a queasy awareness that the SNC is perhaps a sectarian, Islamist train wreck ready to happen.  The only authority to give the SNC full recognition is similarly named (and equally shaky) Libyan National Council.  The rest of the 16 nations have offered vigorous lip service to the SNC in an effort to buttress its prestige, but have as yet declined to recognize it as the legitimate voice of the Syrian people.

It seems the main function of the SNC is to vocally implore—and thereby justify—foreign intervention in Syria.

Though unheard in the West, there are other opposition groups that don’t share the Muslim Brotherhood’s maximalist rejection of negotiation with the Assad regime.

The main in-country dissident organization, the National Coordination Committee, accepts a platform of negotiations with Assad.

In fact, the head of the SNC, Burhan Ghalioun, attempted to achieve a unified opposition with a significant presence both  inside and outside Syria by allying with the NCC.

Justin Vela describes the outcome of Ghalioun’s attempt to abandon the no-negotiation/ foreign-intervention franchise in favor of a broad-based movement:

One particularly damaging stumble occurred when SNC Chairman Burhan Ghalioun signed a draft agreement with the National Coordination Committee, a Syrian opposition group largely based inside the country, in an attempt to unite the two groups. The agreement rejected foreign military intervention and called for dialogue with the regime, conditions that infuriated many Syrian activists. In the face of widespread opposition, Ghalioun backed away from the agreement.

The PRC has, for the most part, let Russia take a leadership role in making the anti-regime-change case for Syria.

However, on February 4, China’s Global Times posted an op-ed, “Third Path” for Syria, which laid out a vision for a resolution of the Syrian crisis that called for compromise—and an active role for China:

History shows regime changes in restive regions mean endless turmoil and uncertainty. Therefore the Syrian opposition does not need to be that ambitious. Threats against al-Assad will persist as they always have. Compromises on critical issues in exchange for a “soft landing” of his country seem to be a good deal for him.

Interestingly, the article—which may not represent a formal policy of the Chinese government but undoubtedly represents at the very least the informed view of a faction within it—hinted at a decoupling from Russia’s approach, seemingly characterizing Russia, but not China, as a die-hard supporter of Assad [A]l-Assad is backed by the Russians. If a war between Western and Russian “agents” occurs in Syria, as is speculated to happen by some in the European media, it would be an arduous and prolonged battle… China is obviously seeking to assume an active role. The busiest mediators on the world stage are not necessarily stronger than China.

Russia can be an ally in advocating a “third path.”

The Global Times op-ed can be regarded as a warning to Russia, which, through its vigorous and vocal defense of the Assad regime, has become identified as its uncritical and committed ally.

More importantly, it presented China not only as an impartial mediator, a role that Russia had sacrificed; it stated that China’s willingness, in contrast with its usual abhorrence of “interference in the affairs of sovereign states” to “assume an active role,” and even have Russia follow its lead.

Statements of Wen Jiabao also fed into this narrative:

“On the issue of Syria, what is most urgent and pressing now is to prevent war and chaos so that the Syrian people will be free from even greater suffering,” Wen told a press conference after a China-EU summit in Beijing on Tuesday.

“To achieve this goal, China supports all efforts in consistence with the U.N. charter and principles, and we are ready to strengthen communication with all parties in Syria and the international community and continue to play a constructive role,” Wen said, adding that China would “absolutely not protect any party, including the Syrian government,” Chinese media reported.

Contrary to the wishful thinking of Western observers, Wen is not signaling that he is ready to throw Assad under the bus.  Rather, the PRC is trying to save Assad—or, more accurately, promote a peaceful, incremental resolution to the Syrian crisis that leaves the current power structure reformed but to a significant degree intact—by positioning itself as an honest broker in the dispute.

Differences in the Russian and Chinese approaches can be seen in the choice of interlocutors among the non-SNC opposition.

Russia, with deeper ties to the current regime, appears to be placing its hopes for political resolution of the crisis on the “patriotic opposition”, a collection of eleven small parties closely associated with the Ba’ath Party and allowed to function even under the restrictive Section 8 of the current Syrian constitution.

In an article written in January 2012, a Russian journalist described a certain amount of political ferment he observed during a recent trip to Syria:

At present there are three main trends in the Syrian patriotic opposition – democratic, liberal and left, which is mainly a communist one. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party is the most influential party among the democratic forces. … the party’s program is more conservative in comparison with the Baath’s program. Nevertheless there are no differences of principle between the two parties. ..

The liberal trend of the opposition is represented by the recently registered secular democratic social movement led by Nabil Feysal… He is an outright opponent of the Islamic fundamentalism, supporter of the liberal democracy. His goal is to turn Syria into “Middle Eastern Denmark”.

The National Committee for the Unity of Syrian Communists is the most influential component of the left (communist) trend of the opposition within the country…headed by Qadri Jamil, a prominent Syrian economist and the professor at the Damascus University. He is the only representative of the opposition who entered the committee on the design of the new constitution…

It is not difficult to characterize these political parties (including one that defines itself as “more conservative than the Ba’ath” and having “no differences of principle” with the ruling party) as part of the regime’s strategy to hopelessly muddy the opposition waters and retain the upper hand in a multi-party environment.

Nevertheless, Qadri Jamil, the Syrian Communist, is the focus of friendly interest from Russia.

Jamil led a delegation to Moscow in October 2011. The Russian media carefully noted his rejection of foreign intervention, and obligingly publicized his opposition bona fides:

“Any interference in Syria’s domestic life will be interpreted as occupation”, the head of the delegation representing the Syrian opposition, Qadri Jamil, told journalists in Moscow.

“We are ready to do everything to stop violence and sit down for talks”, -Jamil said, adding that dialogue is the only possible way to settle the crisis.

Mr. Jamil stressed the importance of a new constitution for Syria, as well as reforms required to meet the needs of Syrians.

The opposition also demands the release of all political prisoners, including those detained during the recent riots.

Although Qadri Jamil is apparently the Syrian regime and Russia’s great hope for a peaceful transition to a multi-party future, he apparently enjoys no standing in the Syrian dissident and activist community.

China, on the other hand, appears to be turning to the considerably more credible (but equally opposed to foreign military intervention) National Coordination Committee as its preferred interlocutor with the forces of change transforming Syria.

In February, as the SNC-promoted and West/GCC backed UN resolution furor was nearing its height, China made the interesting decision to receive Haitham Manna, “vice chief coordinator and spokesperson abroad”of the NCC in Beijing, give him a meeting with Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun, and publicize the meeting with an official news release.

Furthermore, on February 10 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted spokesperson Liu Weimin’s response to two questions concerning Haitham Manna’s visit on its website, all indications that the NCC is, at least for China, in play.

Liu’s responses also promoted China’s position that it can interact with all Syrian opposition forces, including the SNC:

China has been in touch with major Syrian opposition groups over a stretch of time. During Chinese Special Envoy on the Middle East Issue Ambassador Wu Sike’s visit to Syria last October, he met with leaders from the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change and other Syrian opposition groups. China has also made contact and maintained interactions with the National Council of Syria.

Reading between the lines, one can make the following deductions about the PRC’s calculations on Syria:

First, there is no clear consensus within the global community, in the Arab world, or even among the opposition for collapsing the Assad regime.

It looks like the US and Turkey are increasingly keen on Assad accepting a Yemen solution (obligingly floated by Tunisia)—for Assad to drift off into exile so the West can declare victory and turn its attention to other, easier matters while the locals slug it out for pre-eminence under the watchful eye of the Syrian army.

However, Assad, still enjoying a significant measure of support from Russia, China, and Iran, doesn’t seem willing to go anywhere.

There is a window of opportunity for the PRC to promote its desired outcome: reform of the Assad regime and its survival as a reasonably stable ally for China in the Middle East.

Second, the West, if not the GCC, is having second thoughts about its stated enthusiasm for acting as the SNC’s paymaster, arms supplier, and political and diplomatic ally.

The unpleasant experience in Egypt implies that catapulting the intransigent Muslim Brotherhood into a position of political advantage is not necessarily the formula for creating a stable, pro-Western, Israel-friendly democracy in Syria.

More worryingly, al-Qaeda’s enthusiastic attempt to piggyback on the spiraling unrest in Syria—and the car bombings in Aleppo which, if not the work of Zawahiri’s minions, can probably be traced back to al-Qaeda’s Gulf-funded Sunni Islamist fans in western Iraq—are a warning that backing the feckless SNC in an agenda of regime collapse is not going to be the carefree, Iran-bashing romp so many interventionists are advertising.

Third, if the US and Turkey are sufficiently squeamish about the possibility of negative outcomes in Syria, they may not facilitate the flood of arms, money, and advisors the Gulf states would probably be ready to unleash in order to implode the regime.

Fourth, there is a possibility that, as the crisis drags on, more activists and dissidents will decide they will not want to be part of the Muslim Brotherhood and its creature, the SNC.  The SNC might split, leaving the MB in a marginalized rump organization while the secularists, liberals, and moderates i.e. those more likely to be willing to negotiate a political resolution with Assad migrate to the NCC (the possibility hinted at by Burhan Ghalioun’s abortive alliance between the SNC and the NCC).

The one observation that can be made about strategies relying on four contingencies is that they rarely work out.

For the West, the political benefits of posturing against Assad may well outweigh any qualms about the adverse consequences of further empowering the SNC and militarizing the conflict.

Nevertheless, even if China’s offers to mediate come to naught, the costs to China are minimal.  If Assad’s regime collapses, so be it; China has its foot in the door of the New Syria through the NCC.

In any case, events inside Syria might soon escape the ability of anybody to control them—not Assad, not China or Russia, not the SNC, and not the GCC, NATO, or the West.

A poster (“who recently left Syria and has been working with opposition activists”) declared on the Syria Comment website of University of Oklahoma professor Josh Landis:

The Real Opposition in Syria is Not the Syrian National Council or Free Syrian Army

The real opposition is maturing and growing in influence inside and on the ground away from the influence of Qatar, Turkey, Saudi, France or the US. It is a matter of time before the regime gives way. Soon the SNC will be simply remembered as something like one of the many Iraqi opportunistic opposition groups that mushroomed just before the war on Iraq…New more realistic, mature, civic and political powers are taking shape on the ground and will be emerging as powerful players soon. Even if the regime survives this round, there will be new rounds between an exhausted regime and new re-envigorated opposition groups. Forget the SNC and the FSA [Free Syrian Army] if you want to talk about the future.

In other words, maybe the real opposition in Syria is someone we’ve never heard of.  And maybe that’s a good thing.

PETER LEE is a businessman who has spent thirty years observing, analyzing, and writing about international affairs. Lee writes frequently for CounterPunch and can be reached at peterrlee-2000@yahoo


Peter Lee is creator of the Patreon Peter Lee’s China Threat Report.