Friends of Syria

As the international effort to bring down the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria enters the next phase,China continues to explore ways to bring a measure of balance to its policy

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Published: February 23, 2012 3:41:41 am

Friends of Syria

As the international effort to bring down the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria enters the next phase,China continues to explore ways to bring a measure of balance to its policy.

On the one hand,Beijing is defending its decision to veto the Arab League-sponsored resolution against Damascus at the United Nations Security Council and oppose the same resolution in the General Assembly a couple of weeks later. On the other,China’s diplomatic rhetoric has begun to put greater emphasis on supporting the Arab League’s attempts to resolve the crisis.

In a front-page commentary this week,People’s Daily sharply attacked the Western policy in Syria. “If Western countries continue to fully support Syria’s opposition,then in the end a large scale civil war will erupt and there will be no way to thus avoid the possibility of foreign armed intervention.” Yet,a few days earlier,Beijing hosted a bunch of opposition leaders trying to engineer a regime change in Damascus with the support of the Arab League and the West.

Double speak? No surprises there. After all,great power diplomacy is not about consistency. It is about managing contradictions and balancing competing interests. China is doing what all major powers do when caught in a political cleft stick.

The problem for Beijing is that anti-Western rhetoric is not a sufficient response to the current reality in Syria. It is the Arab League,led by Saudi Arabia,which is leading the charge against Assad.

Meanwhile,Beijing has sent envoys to the Middle East to seek a diplomatic solution for Syria,including Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun,who met President Assad in Damascus over the weekend. While backing Assad’s plans for a referendum and multi-party elections,the minister also declared Beijing’s support to “all the mediation efforts by the Arab League to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis”. The Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby welcomed,this week,the signs that Beijing could be shifting its stance on the Syrian crisis.

Unlike Russia,which has announced that it will not join the “Friends of Syria” meeting being held this week in Tunis,China has said it is yet to take a decision.

Foes of Assad

The Arab League and the Western powers decided to convene a “Friends of Syria” gathering,after the double veto by Russia and China limited the prospect of using the UN to mount further pressure on Assad.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will participate in the meeting in Tunis along with the foreign ministers of France,Britain and the Arab League. Some analysts have called the Tunis meet,which is expected to consider sanctions against Damascus and support to Syrian rebels,as a gathering of Assad’s Arab and Western enemies.

While there is a general agreement that Assad must be brought down,there is considerable disagreement among Assad’s foes on how to go about it. Some in the US are calling for military aid to the rebels while others are concerned about al-Qaeda and other extremist forces gaining ground in Syria.

The Syrian opposition itself is a deeply divided house,making the task of Assad’s adversaries difficult. “We seek to recognise a body which represents all the Syrian rebels and the opposition. If that is not possible,we will look for the group that is most representative,” Tunisian Prime Minister Hammadi Jebali said this week.

East Turkestan

On his way back from the US,Xi Jinping,China’s vice-president and presumed successor to Hu Jintao,is reaching out to Turkey,which has emerged as a political and economic powerhouse in the Middle East.

Xi praised Turkey’s new influential role in the Middle East,but the two countries are at odds over Syria. Turkey,a neighbour of Syria,is mounting pressure on Assad to quit. Ankara has its own problems with Beijing’s harsh crackdown on the Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighurs in the far-Western province Xinjiang that was once known as East Turkestan.

As he arrived in Ankara,Xi was greeted by protests outside his hotel by some Uighurs from Xinjiang. Waving the flag of East Turkestan,the protesters burnt the Chinese flag. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan had described Beijing’s crackdown in 2009 against Uighur dissidents as a “genocide”,inviting a furious Chinese reaction. Since then the two sides have agreed to disagree on the Uighur question and focus on realising the vast potential for bilateral cooperation.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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