- What is China’s motivation for a greater involvement in Syria, considering that many Uighur fighters seem to be going to Syria, with the goal of making a new permanent home for themselves, and thus not returning to China?
China does not want Syria to turn into a haven/base for Uyghurs to attack Chinese citizens and interests overseas as well as in the Chinese homeland. The August 30 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Krgyzstan, planned by Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria and financed by Al Nusra, is a sign of what is to come if they continue to grow. This is similar to what provoked Washington to invade Afghanistan in 2001 to deny Al Qaeda a base to plan further attacks against the US.
- China has traditionally not been very interested in Syria, unlike Russia for example – what are they hoping to gain from helping Assad?
The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) is the most effective fighting force countering terrorists in Syria. I’ve documented in my previous Asia Times article about Asian jihadists especially from Uzbekistan and China based in Aleppo and Idlib. So SAA is fighting Asian militants in Syria (which China dub as the new Afghanistan) on behalf of the Chinese and Central Asian states. It is natural that China would help the Syrian government’s counter-terrorism efforts against anti-Chinese militants and other terrorist groups in Syria.
It is important to understand that China is taking a comprehensive approach towards the two Afghanistans—one in Central Asia and one in the Middle East—they are not separate and are interlinked with the same terrorist actors. China is already training Afghan security forces and will step up its aid to the Syrian security forces. The West makes a mistake in looking at them separately, but they are the same issue for China.
Also, China is dependent on Central Asia and Mideast energy sources, and instability in these countries or a take-over by Salafist regimes sympathetic to Uyghur separatism threaten China’s energy supply as well as the Eurasian One Belt One Road project. Xinjiang is the bridgehead and crown jewel of China’s grand strategy.
- What would a Chinese involvement in Syria look like? Could we be seeing actual Chinese troops on the ground, or would it be more logistical?
Chinese military advisors are already on the ground in Syria. They have a history of military cooperation so this is normal, and a lot of Syrian weapon systems are procured from China. There is intelligence sharing and Chinese would train Syrian forces as they are doing with Afghan forces, and provide medical/humanitarian aid as well as additional arms. For example, China provided combat drones to Iraq so they have a new counter-terror capability.
Whether China enhances its military assistance to Syria depends on the US and Turkey/Saudi/Qatar coalition. Because of “inter-mingling” with Ahrar al Sham and other so called “moderate” jihadists, TIP and Nusra enjoy US and its allies’ protection even though they are designated as terrorist organizations. The Chinese have been increasingly alarmed that TIP continues to procure advanced western weapons such as US-supplied anti-tank TOW missiles, Grad missiles, and likely anti-aircraft MANPADS, and drones that they used to record their recent suicide campaigns against the Syrian army.
These western weapons enhance anti-Chinese militants’ war fighting capabilities to launch future attacks on China and Chinese interests. If US decides to up the ante and impose a no fly zone to protect the Army of Conquest (Jaish al Fatah, which include TIP, Ahrar al Sham, Al Nusra among others), this could be a trip wire and force the Chinese to escalate militarily as well. Just as Israel discussed with Russia its red lines regarding chemical weapons and advanced arms transfers to Hezbollah, Chinese red lines would likely also be advanced arms transfers to TIP (which they consider the anti-Chinese ISIS) in the Army of Conquest.
There has been reports that Turkey has been supplying many Uighurs with Turkish passports and access to Syria, and Erdogan has earlier voiced his opposition towards what he and many others view as Chinese oppression of the Uighurs. Considering this, and also considering Turkey’s repeated calls for toppling the Assad regime, how will a Chinese involvement influence it’s relations with Turkey?
I think Turkey may be changing its tone already to topple Assad as it draws closer to Russia. Turkey knows establishing a Salafist/Al Nusra regime that protects Chechen and Uyghur jihadists is a red line for China and Russia. As Turkey realigns with Eurasian states, it may improve relations with Russia, China, India and other Asian states concerned with ISIS and Al Qaeda’s pivot to Asia.
- Another key actor in the region is the US, with whom there has been an increasing amount of tension. What American response could we be witnessing if China chooses to get further involved in Syria? And how could it influence the situation in South East Asia, where China is challenging the US hegemony?
As I mentioned earlier, China’s further involvement depends on US behavior and not the other way around. It’s due to US/Turkey/GCC support for anti-Chinese militants in Syria the past few years that provoked China to get off the side lines and enter into the fray to help Syrian army fight TIP. China already fears US would use TIP as an asset to attack and destabilize its territory due to persistent military writing regarding war with Beijing. The biannual Talisman Sabreamphibious exercise is also about choking China’s access to energy and resources in the Middle East. There is already much distrust and tension in the Western Pacific, and if this is fueled by military escalation in the Middle East to protect the TIP in Jaish al Fatah and enable further attacks on Chinese citizens and interests, there is a higher risk of misperception, miscalculation and potential escalation into a military conflict. In 1950, the Chinese warned US not to cross the Yalu River in Korea, but we ignored their red line and ended up fighting the Chinese in the Korean War. The Chinese take their core interests seriously and will enforce their red lines, and it’s important that the US establishment learns from history.
- Finally, and in relation to the previous question, is this a part of a larger Chinese strategy aimed at becoming a global power, and if so, should we in the future expect China to play a more active role in the Middle East?
China’s rise as a global actor—not yet a global power as US is still the dominant power–is organic just as it was for Great Britain in 19th century and US in the 20th century. A trading state must be a maritime power to protect overseas interests, and China now is the largest trading state in the world, second largest economy, and as a Mideast energy importing state while US becomes an energy-exporting state, means Beijing will play a more active role in the Middle East and Central Eurasia. The US has been criticizing China for being a free-rider in the global commons and now that they are willing to become a partial security provider to address non-traditional security challenges such as counter-terrorism, maritime and energy security, the West should welcome and engage their efforts, and not view them through a zero-sum/cold war lens when we have so many shared threats that are global in nature.
* Dr. Christina Lin is a Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University where she specializes in China-Middle East/Mediterranean relations, and a research consultant for Jane’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Intelligence Centre at IHS Jane’s.
This interview was conducted via email on 8 November with Mr. Jonatan Mizrahi-Werner for IPMonopolet, a Danish journal for international relations published in collaboration with the Department of Political Science in the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.