by Jesse Marks and Logan Pauley
[This article was originally published in The Diplomat on August 20, 2018, and has been re-published here by SAIS China Studies Review with the permission of the author and the original publisher.]
On August 1, Al-Watan, a pro-Assad regime newspaper, ran a story that described a dialogue held with Chinese Ambassador to Syria Qi Qianjin and China’s military attaché, Wang Ruizheng. According to the story, Qi expressed that Chinese military forces are willing to contribute “in some way” to the upcoming campaign in Idlib and future violent conflicts on the ground in Syria, given consent from the host government. Wang Ruizheng furthered Qi’s point, claiming that military cooperation between Beijing and Damascus is “already underway.”
However, news of an increased Chinese military presence in Syria remained ambiguous and seemingly at odds with China’s traditional approach to international engagement. And on August 9, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) official Wang Ruizheng denied the content of the report, calling it a “misinterpretation“ and reaffirming that China would not actively intervene in military conflict in Syria.
Since early 2017, there have been occasional reports claiming that China had dispatched military forces to stamp out possible terrorism flows emanating from the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP)’s influence on China’s Uyghur population. However, the claims by Al-Watan would have served as the first explicit announcement of Beijing’s willingness to play a role in the broader conflict in Syria. This willingness is particularly novel as it would have infringed on China’s unremitting advocacy of the twin principles of nonintervention and the peaceful resolution of disputes. Although the PLA revoked the original message, it is still possible that some form of bilateral communication about increased Chinese assistance in the Syrian conflict did occur.
Why Is China Interested in Military Cooperation With Syria?
Syria is most conspicuously an economic interest for Beijing. A post-war Syria will be in dire need of external financial injection and joint ventures to facilitate its reconstruction. As it stands, the United Nations estimates that the aggregate cost of Syria’s reconstruction will be at least $250 billion. While only scratching at the surface of this figure, China has been actively engaged in proposing Syrian reconstruction and development financing projects.
The most recent example of China’s financial contribution to Syria was seen at last month’s China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, where President Xi Jinping announced $23 billion in Chinese loans (and $90 million in humanitarian aid funding) to Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Jordan collectively. Previously, China has made direct infrastructure development assurances to a post-war Syria, claiming that Chinese tech giant Huawei would redevelop the entirety of Syria’s telecommunications system and that major Chinese construction companies are looking to increase the capacity of Tripoli’s deep water port in Lebanon and construct a railroad to move freight from Tripoli to the Lebanese-Syrian border.
More covert than its economic goals, Syria is important to China’s larger international influence operations ambitions. Sitting at an important position in the China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Syria’s location provides a more direct avenue for China to enter into the Mediterranean Sea than by way of Turkey. As a hallmark of China’s BRI framework, forming joint ventures in Syria that would lead to development of a key seaport situated on the Mediterranean would be advantageous for China to connect its investments in Eurasia, the Arab Gulf, and North Africa. Beijing has not currently submitted any proposals for a port development project in Syria, but China has reportedly deployed and stationed “Night Tigers,” a Special Forces team, in the city of Tartus since December of last year to “fight Uyghur rebels.” By deploying counterterrorism forces and personnel to key flashpoints in the Syrian conflict, China is able to play a more active role in the country’s future political restructuring.
Although deploying Chinese Special Forces, military personnel, or providing military capacity-building to Syria may appear as a form of intervention, China may be looking to circumvent its traditional norms by proclaiming that its military assistance in Syria is justified insofar as it focuses solely on counterterrorism and does not seek to influence Syrian domestic affairs. By doing so, China would be able to support the Assad regime, gain recognition and strengthen relationships with the pro-Assad bloc, and form stronger security relationships with fragile countries. If this were the case, China would be able to form deeper partnerships that go beyond reconstruction promises and loans, cementing political ties that may be advantageous for Beijing’s future geopolitical ambitions. For that reason, Chinese military involvement in Syria, even if indirect, is
uniquely beneficial to China’s future.
Implications of China’s Engagement in Syria
China-Syria military cooperation is not unprecedented. The Syrian government reportedly partnered with China over counterterrorism efforts to root out Uyghur fighters who are fighting alongside radical opposition groups in Idlib since 2015. But, for the most part, China has remained on the periphery of the eight-year Syrian conflict, softly exerting its political, diplomatic, and economic influence to ensure the embattled Syrian government remains in power when the dust settles. While participation is openly welcomed from the Syrian government, China would become the next international power to join the political quagmire, placing Beijing openly on side of the Syrian government and further complicating the multipolar power structure of international actors in presently engaged in Idlib and Syria more broadly.
The success of Assad’s southwest operations in July largely weakened the international legitimacy of the Astana de-escalation agreements and reportedly incentivized China’s military participation in Idlib. Increasing Chinese participation would likely create heightened tension between China and anti-Assad countries, including the United States, which eschew Assad’s increasing legitimization. Beijing’s participation alongside the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian backers would make Beijing a supporting party to ceasefire violations. But with the fragile de-escalation agreement over Idlib nearly at the brink of collapse, this would simply hasten the agreement’s demise. In the end, China’s participation would provide more international legitimacy for Assad’s offensive, but would further bifurcate international actors.
The increasing threat of domestic terrorism is a significant motivator for China’s possible growing military cooperation with Syria and other states in the Middle East. An estimated 5,000 Chinese Uyghurs are currently fighting alongside the Islamic State (ISIS) and other radical groups in Syria, most of which are concentrated in Idlib. In 2017, ISIS issued its first direct threat against China, promising to shed “blood like rivers,” in an attempt to fill its ranks with Uyghurs. Threats from supposed Uyghur terrorists circulated on Chinese social media around the same time, professing that “when the Syrian War ends, that is the day when China’s biggest fear begins.” The same year, China reportedly deployed forces to Syria to assist the Syrian government’s counterterrorism operations. Now, by increasing military cooperation Beijing may be able to help address the threat in Idlib.
The principal challenge Beijing will face in combatting Uygher fighters in Idlib is entering squarely into conflict with its own economic partner, Turkey. China’s commitment to combatting Katibat al Ghuraba al Turkistan (KGT), a Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)-affiliated radical group reportedly composed of largely Uyghur fighters, means targeting groups that, until now, have been under the protection of Turkish forces in Idlib. This could bring China and Turkey into a tense diplomatic debacle, one that already plagues the Astana guarantors — Turkey, Russia, and Iran. Any attempt to invade the Idlib province would put Turkish forces, who have established 12 observation posts in the rebel-held enclave, in the Syrian government and its allies’ lines of fire. While experts debate whether or not Turkey will maintain its presence in Idlib if Russia participates in the offensive, any initial participation from China in the offensive could risk putting China and Turkey on opposing sides of the battlefield. A Turkish journalist argued that Turkey played a role in facilitating the movement of Uygher fighters into Idlib, even supporting the fighters. China’s efforts to eliminate the Uygher threat in Idlib could result in conflict with Turkey. However, Russia, which has long served as a key interlocutor, could play a mediating role to pressure Turkey to increase its efforts to eliminate the radical elements, including Uygher fighters, in Idlib.
While the extent to which China will be involved militarily in Idlib and Syria more broadly is uncertain, it may remain true that China is looking to increase involvement in some form. Given the complex interconnectivity of the various and oppositional stakeholders in Syria, China will likely maintain its principle of “keeping its head down and maintaining a low profile.” To that end, a foreseeable Chinese military strengthening in Syria would look to supplying intelligence personnel and strategic advisers. It is also possible that China would train or deploy increased numbers of Special Forces geared toward counterterrorism efforts. Considering the likely indirect nature of increased military support, China’s participation would provide more international legitimacy for Assad’s offensive without posing a direct challenge to the other, more militaristically-involved external stakeholders.
And while China’s increased presence in military cooperation with Syria would appear to be at odds with its longstanding international principles, if China does in fact increase counterterrorism support and military exchange with Syria, Beijing would likely aim to assuage such concerns by attesting that its growing involvement is predicated on combating terrorist activity and ideology that sprung out of its sovereign territory. By doing so, China stands to gain on three uniquely advantageous fronts.
First, an increased Chinese military presence would garner more influence in the economic and geopolitical reconstruction of post-war Syria, possibly lending to joint ventures and investment deals that help Beijing’s broader trade and expansion ambitions.
Second, China is able to be more actively engaged in suppressing radicalized Uyghur terrorist movements, which both helps its image abroad and also legitimizes its domestic engagement with Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
And finally, stronger military-to-military relations with Syria and other pro-Assad state militaries affords China significant experience in international crisis management, establishes trust, and provides valuable intelligence and knowledge exchange. Therefore, although China’s increased involvement remains ambiguous, it stands to reap considerable gains even if its involvement only pertains to “soft” military exchanges and putting down supposed Uyghur terrorists.
Logan Pauley is a Herbert Scoville Jr. peace fellow with the East Asia program at the Stimson Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
Jesse Marks is a Fulbright Research Fellow based in Amman, Jordan.