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China’s Syria Strategy

Beijing Prepares to Take the Reins

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem (L) is welcomed by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi before a meeting in Beijing on December 24, 2015. (Getty)

*by Thomas J. Shattuck

With signs pointing to the civil war in Syria entering its final stages and Russian President Vladimir Putin declaring victory over ISIS there in December 2017, key actors are looking to the future and post-war development of the ravaged country.

On December 11 2017, when visiting the Hemeimeem air base in Syria, Putin said to the Russian troops stationed there, “Here in Syria, far away from our borders, you helped the Syrian people to preserve their state and fend off attacks by terrorists. . . . You have dealt a devastating blow to those who blatantly threatened our country. We will never forget about the victims who fell in the fight against terror both here and in Russia.”

Even though Putin has declared victory and plans to begin withdrawing troops, the conflict is far from over. Reports of China sending its elite “Night Tigers” special forces unit to Syria about one week after Putin’s visit points to this fact (though the Chinese have denied such reports).

When thinking of the civil war in Syria, reading about China may surprise some since other than vetoing various proposed resolutions/sanctions on the United Nations Security Council, China has not played much of a role in the conflict vis-à-vis Russia, the United States, Iran, and Europe. What is China doing in Syria now, and why is it now interested in playing a more active role there?

For China, Syria’s importance comes down to two main areas of interests: preventing the rise and spread of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) in the Middle East and China and preparing Syria to be a key part of its One Belt One Road Initiative (OBOR).

COMBATTING TERRORISM AT HOME AND ABROAD

The Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) is a Uyghur Muslim militant jihadist group with ties to China’s Xinjiang province. The group’s main goal is to create an independent state named East Turkestan out of parts of Xinjiang. The jihadist group has associated itself with al Qaeda in Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, where its leader dwells. The most common estimates state that there are about 5,000 members in Syria who travelled to the Middle East illegally. The group has attacked Chinese targets with some success, most notably the 2016 attack on the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan. TIP also claimed responsibility for the 2013 car attack on Tiananmen Square, too. Chinese authorities also blamed TIP for orchestrating the 2014 knife attack in Kunming.

In 2014, in an interview with Reuters, TIP’s leader, Abdullah Mansour, did not mince words when it came to his goals regarding China. Mansour said, “The fight against China is our Islamic responsibility and we have to fulfill it. . . . China is not only our enemy, but it is the enemy of all Muslims. . . . We have plans for many attacks in China. . . . We have a message to China that East Turkestan people and other Muslims have woken up. They cannot suppress us and Islam any more. Muslims will take revenge.”
China cracked down on the Uyghur population in Xinjiang following various attacks attributed to TIP or the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. The Uyghurs feel as though the Communist Party is clamping down on their religion and culture, causing further discontent.

It is important for China to quash this group in Syria, where it has actually been somewhat successful, taking part in “the victory of the rebels in the Jisr al-Shouwar war and the occupation of Abu Zaher Airport.” TIP also organized its first military parade in Idlib showing off its munitions and armaments in November 2017. The show of strength further demonstrates that TIP is not concerned with the overthrow of the Assad regime, but in the words of Jin Yinan, a Chinese major general, it is “taking advantage of the Syrian Civil War to obtain experience and raise the profile of Xinjiang among jihadists from other theaters.” If TIP can make connections with other jihadi groups or further broadcast its purpose and goals through the war in Syria, then attacks within China’s borders could increase. Therefore, the Night Tigers will focus on defeating TIP in the Idlib region of Syria before members can return to China.

It is in the best interest of the Chinese to send the Night Tigers now since the Syrian government, aided by Russian support, has retaken much of the country. It is an opportunity for the group to get combat experience, to crush this threat, and to send a message to TIP’s affiliates and sympathizers.

A POTENTIAL PILLAR FOR ONE BELT ONE ROAD?

The other area of interest for China in Syria is its potential role in the One Belt One Road Initiative, especially since the ports of Latakia and Tartus are on the Mediterranean Sea. If Syria is to play any sort of meaningful role in OBOR, then the government must have control over its territory. What incentive does China have to invest in a development initiative in a country still bogged down in a civil war?

Regardless of how much longer the war will last, China is taking steps to invest in Syria, and the Syrian regime is actively courting Chinese investment.

In September 2017, during the United Nations General Assembly, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Syrian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Walid Muallem. At the meeting, Wang said, “Syria is an important node in the ancient Silk Road and that the ‘Belt and Road’ construction can serve as an important opportunity for bilateral cooperation in future. China welcomes Syria’s active participation in the ‘Belt and Road’ construction and stands ready to carry out cooperation with Syria within this framework for the sake of common development.”

In November 2017, Wang met with Political and Media Advisor to the Syrian President Bouthania Shaaban. At their meeting, Wang Yi outlined China’s vision for peace and development in Syria: “Counter-terrorism, dialogue and reconstruction are the three key points for solving the Syrian issue, with anti-terrorism as the foundation, dialogue as the way out and reconstruction as the guarantee.” China’s recent actions in and with Syria follow this three-pronged approach. Both sides are setting the groundwork for the “reconstruction” element.

At the meeting, Shaaban reiterated that Syria “welcomes China to play a greater role in the process.”
The two countries’ government officials are not just using flowery language to discuss their relationship. China and Syria have signed various economic and aid agreements.

In November, China delivered 1,000 tons of rice to the war-torn country and plans to send another 4,000 tons. The food aid came from a fund that China set up to aid countries along the OBOR. Sending drastically needed food aid to starving citizens is a great—and particularly cheap—way of showing support and winning over the “hearts and minds” of Syrians. The Chinese ambassador to Syria said of the food aid delivery, “We would like, through this food aid, to help the Syrian people in the difficult time of war and this food aid is a clear sign of the firm relations and friendship between the governments and peoples of China and Syria, and we will continue to offer all humanitarian and economic help to the Syrian people.”

China is not just providing food aid to Syria, either. It also “signed three agreements with the Syria government to provide humanitarian aid to Syria worth over 40 million US dollars.” China also has announced a plan to build a $2 billion industrial park in Syria for 150 Chinese companies. Chinese companies have shares in Syrian oil and telecom companies as well. The investment plans have been made and in some cases are already being carried out. These agreements show China’s long-term plans for Syria’s development.

Because China vetoed a number of anti-Syrian UN resolutions and has provided various forms of economic and military aid to the country during the war, the Syrian government is giving China and Chinese businesses a front seat in development. Assad himself noted that “China can be in every sector with no exception, because we have damage in every sector.”

While Russia has made headlines for its direct military support to Syria throughout the war, it looks like China is positioning itself to take the reins in the development of the country whenever the civil war ends.

*Thomas J. Shattuck is the Editor of Geopoliticus: The FPRI Blog and a Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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