Chinese and Russian Ghosts in Syria

15 km from the border of Syria sits a spattering of squalid tents in the refugee camp of Zaatari, Jordan – home to almost 40,000 refugees displaced from their homes in Syria in the midst of the devastating Civil War between President Assad and rebel forces. Here you’ll find a large number of families, mostly children, attempting to live some semblance of a normal life on meager assistance from aid organizations and NGOs after hastily rushing across the border to escape cluster bomb attacks on schools, homes, and hospitals and actions that many call as “crimes against humanity”.

The United Nations has estimated that as of December 2012 over 500,000 refugees have crossed the Syrian border into neighboring countries similar to Zaatari to seek asylum since the beginning of the revolt (with an additional 1.2 million people removed from their homes still in the borders of Syria) and that number is only expected to increase. With an estimated half of all refugees under the age of 18, UN officials are stating that the extent of the humanitarian crisis is unprecedented in the region.

While the humanitarian crisis may be unprecedented, on the international political stage, the forces at hand are anything but novel as policy makers in Washington, New York, Beijing, and Moscow attempt to engage in a power struggle with immense repercussions for millions of lives in the region.

The two major culprits to the crisis in the international realm, Russia and China, seem to have no qualms about fueling the conflict and displacing many more refugees as international sentiment (from Western countries to the Arab League) has all but sided with the rebels in deposing Assad. After Russia and China’s “despicable” (kudos to Secretary Clinton) vetoes of security forces and sanctions in Syria, much speculation has turned to what their full involvement in the conflict would be. It seems we now have an answer.

Fueled by Russian (and suspected Chinese) weapons, paid with oil revenues and exports from Chinese-owned oil fields in Syria (where Chinese state-run corporations has a majority stake), and supported by vetoes on the Security Council by Russia and China, Assad’s forces continue to escalate the crisis contributing to a humanitarian and political crisis to unprecedented levels.

While Russia’s alliance with Syria is relatively clear given the close history, the Chinese relationship seems to be a bit more interesting. In November, for the first time, China entered the international scene by presenting a vague four-point proposal to find a resolution to the war. While most diplomats dismissed the plan, most analysts are pointing to a major reversal in Chinese foreign policy that is both inexperienced and driven by its own domestic unrest.

In 2006, the Chinese government was put under international scrutiny after the UN discovered that Beijing had been selling military trucks, attack helicopters, and weapons to the Sudanese government in their pursuit of ethnic cleansing. There too, China had a significant stake in the oil fields and had vetoed any UN intervention into Darfur (only to finally give in after intense international pressure). In fact, so inexperienced is Chinese foreign policy that six years after the discovery, the Chinese government is still unable to restrain a flood of arms sales in major conflict zones in Africa (in violation of almost every international agreement) as a result of its “unbridled capitalism”, according to David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security. Most recently in Libya, where China voted for the sanctions, the Foreign Ministry embarrassingly reported that Chinese arms contracts were signed without the government’s consent in direct opposition to its foreign policy. While China has grown more mature as a world power, its inability to clamp down on arms deals in major conflict zones shows that it has a long way to go.

Back at home, the Chinese government, dealing with an increasing tide of domestic unrest, continues to fight a battle internationally to stem any deposition of power even the likes of Assad. In fact, with a paltry $2.2 billion in annual exports, Syria, while not a major economic partner of China, is the best example of an increasingly paranoid Chinese foreign policy driven by domestic constraints and a government that does not want to seem like it is pressured by the international community (especially after the recent transition). Given its lack of significant economic status, the reasoning for a veto of sanctions against Syria seems less of an economic move and more of a move to contain any further instability. After the announcement, the Chinese government fought back against a wave of criticism by its people on its news sites, blogs, and micro-blogging services, leading many commenters to make statements like: “The Syrian government is killing its own people, because of one man, Assad, who wants to hold on to power… Two nations, China and Russia, are again on the wrong side of history” and “As a Chinese citizen, I only represent myself and apologize to the Syrian people. I will always stand together with the Syrian people.”

While US involvement has been limited to just humanitarian assistance thus far, this week, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton issued a stern warning that any use of chemical weapons of mass destruction by Assad’s forces against innocent civilians – no doubt financed by Russian and Chinese investments – would be the “red line” for direct US military intervention. Meanwhile, NATO has begun to station air-defenses along the Turkey-Syrian border while the Russian government has begun to station warships at a naval base in Syria. The situation is becoming tense as major world powers brace for a potential showdown. If anything, China has chosen an incredibly unfortunate time to assert its policy of non-intervention given the massive human rights violations.

With China’s transition behind them and Russia’s declining influence, it’s time for China to start acting like a world power or at least not get in the way of atrocities against millions of innocent people in Syria and the Middle East. If Assad does begin to use chemical weapons, the bloodshed on civilian populations and the traumatic experiences on hundreds of thousands of refugees (most of whom are under 18) will be on the hands of the Chinese and Russian governments.

Border to border, China may have the sovereignty to do whatever it wants with regards to stability – but the questions are much different when posed upon an international level. After all, given its influence in the face of extreme crimes against humanity isn’t a policy of inaction simply an endorsement of the status quo and just as much an intervention as direct involvement?


As always, I am always open to emails at timothy.t.hwang@gmail.com, tweets at @timthwang, and Facebook messages at timthwang.

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