China, Syria, Middle East, ETIM, Assad

The mid of August 2016 saw an interesting revelation come to light as news outlets began reporting that China was stepping into the Syrian theatre in support of the Assad regime. The exact nature of agreement between the parties could not be uncovered though the bits of information that did leak out pointed towards ‘aid and training assistance’ that China would extend towards their Syrian allies.

With this latest addition to what is already being seen as one of the most fractured and complex battlefields on the planet, the Syrian conflict has taken another interesting turn as yet another great power has decided to put its weight behind a faction in the conflict that once started out as a civil war but has since evolved into a global proxy war, to the point where it has become one large game of risk with the world’s great powers as its players.

At the moment, China finds itself standing shoulder to shoulder with Russia and Iran who have committed troops and military hardware to support the regime forces, while Saudi Arabia, the GCC and the USA form ranks with the opposing side, each supporting some factions while simultaneously acting against others, a counterproductive strategy which also serves to highlight just how complexly intertwined the conflict has become.

Interestingly enough, China had last extended its cooperation to the Iraqi government and forces as well where it found its interests temporarily aligned with the USA. That situation seems to have failed to translate into the basis for greater cooperation and the two states now find themselves backing completely different sides.

If we are to assess the rationale behind China’s decision to engage in another remote Middle Eastern Conflict, we will find ourselves bombarded with possible options that serve as a reflection of just how complex the situation in the Middle East has become, especially since the Arab Spring basically altered the balance of power in the entire region. However, there are three reasons that might be noted as the most significant driving factors behind China’s decision to become party to the Syrian conflict. This is already proving to be an inescapable black hole for the powers that probably entered the conflict without considering that it would evolve into a war of attrition where every inch of land will trade hands several time on a daily basis and shaky alliances will shift with every death, defining who governs large swathes of land as well as important urban centres where most of the fighting takes place.

The first reason behind this commitment is China’s history of alliance with Syria. The two countries have maintained cordial relations since before the inception of the PRC. Over the years there has been a decent volume of trade between the two countries with most of the exports being Chinese consumer products meant for the Syrian market though military cooperation also formed an important component of the diplomatic relations between the two countries. China had exported a small reactor in addition to various conventional arms to Syria in the past. It is also alleged that China was a key partner for Syria in its ballistic missile development program. Although this is definitely an important factor and the historic tradition of friendly relations laid the foundations for China’s support to Syria, the nature of engagement between both states was not as significant as to justify such a momentous commitment.

To understand the other key reason behind China’s decision to play a decisive role in the Middle East, we must observe the recent trend of Chinese foreign engagement in general. Once the gentle giant of Asia, China has maintained a foreign policy that was uncharacteristic of a country with the military and economic resources as well as the political clout that China possessed. The country historically relied not on political posturing or threats but political outreach and military/economic aid in order to achieve its interests with regards to other countries. However, recently there has been a marked change in China’s tenor as well as its actions. The change is perhaps most pronounced when seen in the context of the South China Sea issue where the Chinese strong-armed their way to the Spartly Islands when they saw that they could not influence the situation through other means. Repeated Chinese interceptions of US military aircraft which involved bringing their aircraft dangerously close to the other, openly dismissing the Hague’s decision on the South China Sea and openly challenging claimant states also convey the reality of the new found Chinese aggression.

In line with this new policy, China is flexing its muscles as it prepares to accept the mantle of being a great power and so, one of the greatest frontiers for China to explore at the moment would be the Middle East. Besides the oil wealth that the region boasts (which is essential to satiate China’s growing demand), it is especially important to China for a number of reasons. Much of the Middle East has consistently shown a dislike for American policies for the region through opinion polls and the occasional violent rioting. The lack of another power however, means that the traditionally pro-Soviet Middle Eastern nations are now left without a benefactor in the new unipolar world. China hopes to tap that sense of insecurity and exclusion to descend on the Middle East as a messiah, the new great power that can act as a counterweight to the USA and put its weight behind the countries, giving a stronger voice to the 300 million people residing in the region.

Lastly, the outcome of the Iraq/Syria conflict is intrinsically tied to China’s own internal security and that is also one of the key reasons why both Iraq and Syria have seen a massive commitment from the Chinese in helping them defeat the host of militant groups within their borders.

China’s interest in the Middle East is primarily invoked by the presence of the ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement). The group, responsible for mounting a violent insurgency in the western Xinjiang province of China has long operated from Pakistan’s tribal areas, resulting in some friction between the close allies. The group was dislodged when its base of operation was taken during the military operations in North and South Waziristan. In search of a new base and a new war, ETIM as well as other Chinese fighters began to appear more prominently in videos coming out of Syria and to some degree, Iraq.

A large number of ETIM fighters are said to have joined the Islamic State where they are said to have formed the formidable “Turkestan Brigade” that has seen combat in some of the most intensely fought over territories in Syria. It is estimated that close to 3000 ETIM fighters are fighting alongside the so-called Islamic State while another group of fighters between 500 to 1000 have joined the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Formerly Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front).

China recognizes the significance of this opportunity, ETIM is farther from its borders than it has ever been before and is finding itself pressed against the very fringe of the continent, locked in an intense war where it is hard pressed for men, materials and opportunities necessary to be able to attack mainland China. These factors represent a unique chance to eliminate the group once and for all, and thereby effectively put the most dangerous militant segment of the Uighur insurgency to rest.

The presence of Turkey will obviously mean that some of these fighters might be able to spill into the country, should the group be defeated in Syria, hoping that the traditional support that Turkey has maintained for the Uigher Movement will translate into tangible fiscal and diplomatic support when the time comes. But given Turkey’s own terrorism problem at the moment, the group might find that the space it imagines for itself at the moment is severely limited.

Thus it is a combination of interests driven by internal security as well as overseas projection that are shaping China’s dynamic new Middle East policy, openly coming out in support of the Assad regime should also serve as a clear indicator on where China stands in the conflict as well as in the ranks of nations that find themselves locked in this lengthy war. It is also an unofficial declaration of China’s intention to now play a more active and decisive role in shaping the politics and security of its neighbouring regions.

Muhammad Zarrar Saeed

has studied International Relations from Bahria University

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