Syrian Dynamics and Russian and Chinese Policies in the Region

11/07/2019
By Marie Fagetti

The current situation in Syria undeniably involves multiple variables with international implications.

The Turkish forces instituting a resettlement zone in the northern region of the country that abruptly displaced Kurdish People’s Protection Units and other forces connected to the Syrian Democratic Forces while pro-President Bashar al-Assad Syrians struggle to bring the nation back under control.

But it is important to look at how Russia and China are engaged in the region.[i]

As with the Afghan peace process, President Vladimir Putin and his administration are actively trying to frame their nation as the region’s “referee of last resort” once the United States Armed Forces completely abdicates its influence, a mediator that can work with all parties involved so that peace may return to Syria and more importantly serve as a highly compelling victory for Russian diplomacy.[ii]

Granted, there are some economic motives for a stable Syria, as Kurdish and Turkish forces warring within such close geographic proximity to the Eurasian Economic Union, as well as the supposed smuggling of Syrian oil by United States private oil and military personnel, could prove detrimental to the oil-dependent Russian economy; however, the Putin administration’s choices to negotiate a ceasefire between Turkish and Kurdish forces, decry United States military involvement within the country, and consistent support for incumbent regimes are tactics that seem geared more toward gaining diplomatic influence than those based on purely transactional motives.[iii]

In contrast, the Chinese government, besides a few token statements opposing the belligerency of Turkish policy in northern Syria, has been comparatively uncommunicative on its perspective on the situation, even more so then its typical opaqueness would call for.[iv]

Outwardly, Chinese representatives such as foreign ministry representative Geng Shuang have called for a peaceful resolution, specifically for “Turkey to halt military action and to return to the right track, resolving the issue with political solutions.”[v]

Not much more has been said by Chinese representatives, possibly because immediately after criticizing Turkish policies, the Turkish ambassador to China announced he found it hypocritical for Chinese officials to lecture on how “potential terrorists” should be treated humanely considering the standing policy of dealing with the Turkic Uighurs in China’s Xinjian Province.[vi]

As such, there are Chinese economic interests in Syria, but due to its precarious moral standing and disinclination for becoming embroiled in costly geopolitical conflicts, the Chinese government is, for now, seemingly willing to step back and allow the Russian Federation government to be at the forefront of diplomacy.[vii]

Russian Involvement in Syria as a Reflection of its Middle East Policy

The Putin administration has accomplished something that, considering the tangled history of the Middle East’s post-colonial, ethnic and religious politics, should be nearly impossible: it has simultaneously positioned itself as an enabler of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s self-proclaimed “safe zone” for national defense and refugee relocation purposes, as a sustainer of Kurdish society, as the continued supporter of the Assad presidency, and as the only foreign nation that can legitimately keep military forces within the country.[viii]

The Russian Armed Forces (RAF) have officially been engaged in Syria since September 2015 and certain observers have contemplated that its targeted spending, as opposed the United States government’s hemorrhaging in Afghanistan and Iraq, and active presence has established the Russian Federation as a considerable and reliable force within the region.[ix]

Consequently, when President Erdogan, the president of a country with which Russian interests have in recent years aligned, the Russian government already had a foothold in the political landscape of the country that it could use to leverage itself into a place of prominence during negotiations.

There is one drawback, however, of orchestrating the negotiations as personally as the Putin administration appears to intend to do; the typical Russia policy of minimal engagement may not be enough to ensure that all goes well with the established “safe zone” in northern Syria, and the Russian government needs for this treaty to hold and be a success if it is going to remain acting as a regional superpower.[x]

In any case, however, the Putin administration will inevitably continue to enjoy some diplomatic success in the Middle East for some time due to its standing policy of supporting incumbent governments, which has garnered it the approval of such influential but politically, ethnically, and religiously diverse governments as those of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Israel.

As such, commentators have noted that even if representatives for these nations would never submit to all being in the same room at the same time, they all nonetheless have worked with President Putin, making Moscow a sort of displaced hub for Middle Eastern diplomacy.[xi]

Another point of contention that could potentially prohibit the Russian Federation from being the sole foreign operator in Syria is the small detachment of United States military personnel that still remain in the country to “protect Syria’s oilfields,” despite repeated implications from President Donald Trump that all United States forces will be removed from the region.[xii]

To be clear, the United States military’s reason, morally and only slightly less so politically, for remaining in Syria is itself as clear as the oil it claims to be guarding.  Ostensibly, President Trump has left those forces there to prevent oil smuggling by Islamic State (IS) militants who escaped Kurdish prison camps during the Turkish incursion, while others believe it is part of a reelection ploy and that he surely plans to remove this last contingent once Voting Day approaches.[xiii]

The Russian Federation government, however, through both its Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims, to have photographic proof that United States personnel are selfishly smuggling oil themselves, essentially stealing from a war-torn country that some Russian officials would have you believe was ruined by United States intervention in the first place.[xiv]

As of when this article was written, the United States government has not publicly responded to such accusations, but the accusations themselves are revealing of Russian interests in the region.  The combination of the aforementioned smuggling criticisms, the claims that United States military personnel are in the country illegitimately, and the refusal to permit the western-dominated North Atlantic Treaty Organization to establish the “safe zone” would indicate that the Russian government is strongly agitating for it to be the only foreign military in Syria, which would ease its path to being a dominant political force in the Middle East as well.[xv]

China’s Hampered Position on Syria

Considering the major upheaval that the Turkish incursion in Syria has caused and the considerable Chinese economic interests in the region, including Belt and Road Initiative contracts with eight different states, finding original commentary that conveys an authentic Chinese position on the situation and does not just report on Russian, Turkish, or, to a less common degree, United States policies is difficult to come by.[xvi]

The prevalent mirroring of Russian opinions and policies, such as the accusations of United States smuggling operations and applauding the Memorandum of Understanding’s historic qualities negotiated between Presidents Putin and Erdogan, could be an implication that the Chinese government is simply allowing Russian representatives to take the lead on risky diplomatic entanglements.[xvii]

During a similar period of Russian intervention in a Middle Eastern country that possesses resources of value to Chinese interests, however, there was a clearer Chinese diplomatic stance than what is currently accessible on Syria.[xviii]

Another, potentially more plausible explanation for the lack of substantive political commentary on the Syria situation is that the one time a Chinese representative went beyond the habitual encouragements for a peaceful resolution and actively called for President Erdogan to cease his military expansion, which more than coincidentally threatened Chinese oil and other economic interests tied to a stable Syria, the Turkish ambassador to China, Emin Onen, struck back with accusations of hypocrisy.[xix]

Specifically, Ambassador Onen thought the Chinese government should be more sympathetic to the Turkish decision to prevent potential terrorist attacks considering the suspicious tactics with which it handles the Uighur population.

Seeing as the treatment of the Uighurs by the Chinese government is already a topic of global debate, criticism, and ethnic interest to the Turkish government since the Uighurs are a Turkic group themselves, the Chinese government could possibly feel uninclined to call much more attention to its more controversial policies and open itself up to retaliatory rhetorical attacks by openly siding against Turkish actions.[xx]

As such, the Chinese government has continued to offer little more than tepid support for Russian negotiations for peace in Syria and criticism of United States actions.[xxi]

One other, if perhaps secondary in comparison to the economic motive that drives much of Chinese foreign policy, reason why the Chinese government disapproves of the Turkish incursion into northern Syria is that the targeting of Kurdish forces quite possibly allowed the Islamic State militants the Kurds were imprisoning to escape.

Consequently, there are growing concerns that IS-trained Indonesian fighters may return to southeast Asia to continue the disruption that culminated in the IS takeover of Marawi in the Philippines.[xxii]

Considering the growing Chinese economic interest in the South China Sea and the general concern with terrorism within or near Chinese territory, unrest in the region is actively unwelcome and the Chinese government could to a certain degree be critical of Turkish actions for having led to this additional danger.[xxiii]

Marie Fagetti is a Santa Clara University scholar visiting American University

[i] “Press Review: Moscow’s View of Turkey’s Incursion and Russian Oil’s Softer OPEC+ Deal Bid,” TASS, October 10, 2019, https://tass.com/pressreview/1082633; Olesya Astakhova and Andrew Osborn, “Russia Says ‘Unacceptable’ Turkish Incursion into Syria Must be Temporary,” The Moscow Times, October 15, 2019, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/10/15/russia-says-unacceptable-turkish-incursion-into-syria-must-be-temporary-a67749 or Olesya Astakhova and Andrew Osborn, “Russia Says ‘Unacceptable’ Turkish Incursion into Syria Must be Temporary,” Reuters, October 14, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-security-turkey-russia/russia-says-unacceptable-turkish-incursion-into-syria-must-be-temporary-idUSKBN1WU1JN.

[ii] Henry Meyer and Eltaf Najafizada, “Russia Challenges U.S. in Hosting Taliban at Afghan Talks,” The Moscow Times, November 9, 2018, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2018/11/09/ russia-challenges-us-in-hosting-taliban-at-afghan-talks-a63449 or Henry Meyer and Eltaf Najafizada, “Russia Challenges U.S. in Hosting Taliban at Afghan Talks,” Bloomberg, November 8, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-11-09/russia-challenges-u-s-in-hosting-taliban-for-afghan-peace-talks; Maxim Trudolyubov, “Russia is the New Referee in the Middle East,” The Moscow Times, October 14, 2019, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/10/14/russia-is-the-new-referee-in-the-middle-east-a67717 or Maxim Trudolyubov, “Ankara’s Offenses, Moscow Advances,” The Russia File, The Kennan Institute at The Wilson Center, October 11, 2019, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/ankaras-offenses-moscows-advances.

[iii] “Press Review: Putin, Erdogan Reach Deal on Syria Buffer Zone and Sochi Hosts Africa Summit,” TASS, October 22, 2019, https://tass.com/pressreview/1084691; “U.S. Keeps Its Military Presence in Syria to Rob Syrian People – Russian Diplomat,” TASS, October 27, 2019, https://tass.com/politics/1085536; “U.S. Actions in Syria Run Counter to International Law – Lavrov,” TASS, October 29, 2019, https://tass.com/world/1086019; Leonid Bershidsky, “The Putin-Erdogan Deal Poses a Challenge to the West,” The Moscow Times, October 23, 2019, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/10/23/the-putin-erdogan-deal-poses-a-challenge-to-the-west-a67877 or Leonid Bershidsky, “The Putin-Erdogan Deal Poses a Challenge to the West,” Bloomberg, October 23, 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-10-23/putin-and-erdogan-s-syria-deal-poses-a-challenge-to-the-west.

[iv] Huaxia, “Syria’s Sovereignty, Independence, Territorial Integrity Must be Respected, Safeguarded: Spokesperson,” XinhuaNet, October 10, 2019,  http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-10/10/c_138461479.htm.

[v] Catherine Wong, “China Calls on Turkey to Halt Military Incursion in Syria and ‘Return to Right Track,’” South China Morning Post, October 15, 2019, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3033066/china-calls-turkey-halt-military-incursion-syria-and-return.

[vi] Keegan Elmer, ““Turkey Hits Back at China’s Call to Stop Military Action in Syria,” South China Morning Post, October 21, 2019, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3033936/turkey-hits-back-chinas-call-stop-military-action-syria.

[vii] Simone McCarthy, ““China Poised but Not Rushing to Follow Russia Plan for Middle East as Donald Trump’s Administration Leaves Vacuum by Rushing out of Syria,” South China Morning Post, October 19, 2019,  https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3033501/china-poised-not-rushing-follow-russia-plan-middle-east.

[viii] Finian Cunningham, “‘Lucky’ Trump Basks in Glory of Russia’s Landmark Security Achievement in Syria,” RT, October 24, 2019, https://www.rt.com/op-ed/471751-trump-syria-kurds-putin-turkey/; Leonid Bershidsky, “The Putin-Erdogan Deal Poses a Challenge to the West,” The Moscow Times, October 23, 2019, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/10/23/the-putin-erdogan-deal-poses-a-challenge-to-the-west-a67877 or Leonid Bershidsky, “The Putin-Erdogan Deal Poses a Challenge to the West,” Bloomberg, October 23, 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-10-23/putin-and-erdogan-s-syria-deal-poses-a-challenge-to-the-west; Maxim Trudolyubov, “Russia is the New Referee in the Middle East,” The Moscow Times, October 14, 2019, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/10/14/russia-is-the-new-referee-in-the-middle-east-a67717 or Maxim Trudolyubov, “Ankara’s Offenses, Moscow Advances,” The Russia File, The Kennan Institute at The Wilson Center, October 11, 2019, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/ankaras-offenses-moscows-advances.

[ix] Leonid Bershidsky, “The Putin-Erdogan Deal Poses a Challenge to the West,” The Moscow Times, October 23, 2019, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/10/23/the-putin-erdogan-deal-poses-a-challenge-to-the-west-a67877 or Leonid Bershidsky, “The Putin-Erdogan Deal Poses a Challenge to the West,” Bloomberg, October 23, 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-10-23/putin-and-erdogan-s-syria-deal-poses-a-challenge-to-the-west

[x] “Implementation of Russia-Turkey Memo on Syria ‘Not Without Difficulty’ – Russian Defence Minister,” Sputnik News, October 30, 2019, https://sputniknews.com/world/201910301077179130-russia-turkey-memo-on-syria-implemented-not-without-difficulty–russian-defence-minister/; “Irregularities in Implementation of Russian-Turkish Deal on Syria are Possible – Kremlin,” TASS, October 25, 2019, https://tass.com/politics/1085340.

[xi] Maxim Trudolyubov, “Russia is the New Referee in the Middle East,” The Moscow Times, October 14, 2019, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/10/14/russia-is-the-new-referee-in-the-middle-east-a67717 or Maxim Trudolyubov, “Ankara’s Offenses, Moscow Advances,” The Russia File, The Kennan Institute at The Wilson Center, October 11, 2019, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/ankaras-offenses-moscows-advances.

[xii] “U.S. Keeps Its Military Presence in Syria to Rob Syrian People – Russian Diplomat,” TASS, October 27, 2019, https://tass.com/politics/1085536.

[xiii] “Turks Appeased, Kurds Saved, U.S. Gets Breathing Space: ‘Russia takes on Job that U.S. Failed at in Syria,” RT, October 22, 2019, https://www.rt.com/news/471638-russia-turkey-deal-winners/.

[xiv] “‘Arrogant & Illegal’: Lavrov Denounces U.S. Military’s Oil Moves in Syria at Russian-Turkish-Iranian Press Event,” RT, October 29, 2019, https://www.rt.com/news/472161-lavrov-cavusoglu-zarif-geneva/; “Consequences of U.S. Recklessness in Middle East are Yet to Unfold, Says Lavrov,” TASS, October 27, 2019, https://tass.com/world/1085579.

[xv] “Lavrov Slams Initiative to Set Up NATO-Controlled Safe Zone in Syria,” October 25, 2019, TASS, https://tass.com/politics/1085353.

[xvi] Simone McCarthy, ““China Poised but Not Rushing to Follow Russia Plan for Middle East as Donald Trump’s Administration Leaves Vacuum by Rushing out of Syria,” South China Morning Post, October 19, 2019,  https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3033501/china-poised-not-rushing-follow-russia-plan-middle-east; “News Analysis: Sochi Deal Seals Russia’s Control in Northern Syria, Addresses Turkey’s Concerns: Experts,” XinhuaNet, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-10/23/c_138497122.htm; “U.S. to Send Additional Military Assets to Control Oil Fields in Syria: Reports,” China Daily, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201910/25/WS5db29847a310cf3e35573a61.html.

[xvii]Simone McCarthy, ““China Poised but Not Rushing to Follow Russia Plan for Middle East as Donald Trump’s Administration Leaves Vacuum by Rushing out of Syria,” South China Morning Post, October 19, 2019,  https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3033501/china-poised-not-rushing-follow-russia-plan-middle-east; Office of the President of Russia, “Memorandum of Understanding Between Turkey and the Russian Federation,” The Kremlin, October 22, 2019, http://en.kremlin.ru/supplement/5452.

[xviii] Mu Xuequan, “China Calls for New Steps, New Breakthroughs in Afghan Peace Process”, XinhuaNet, December 15, 2018, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-12/15/c_137676862.htm; Farhan Bokhari, “China Edges Closer to Afghanistan as U.S. Cancels Peace Talks,” Nikkei Asian Review, September 9, 2019, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/China-edges-closer-to-Afghanistan-as-US-cancels-peace-talks.

[xix] Yan, “Chinese UN Envoy Calls for Greater Humanitarian Aid Across Syria,” XinhuaNet, October 25, 2019, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-10/25/c_138500424.htm; Huaxia, “Syria’s Sovereignty, Independence, Territorial Integrity Must be Respected, Safeguarded: Spokesperson,” XinhuaNet, October 10, 2019,  http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-10/10/c_138461479.htm.

[xx] Catherine Wong, “China Calls on Turkey to Halt Military Incursion in Syria and ‘Return to Right Track,’” South China Morning Post, October 15, 2019, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3033066/china-calls-turkey-halt-military-incursion-syria-and-return; Keegan Elmer, ““Turkey Hits Back at China’s Call to Stop Military Action in Syria,” South China Morning Post, October 21, 2019, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3033936/turkey-hits-back-chinas-call-stop-military-action-syria.

[xxi] Ren Qi and Liu Xuan, “Russia, Turkey, Clinch Deal for Patrols,” China Daily, October 24, 2019, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201910/24/WS5db0fce8a310cf3e3557237a.html; Liu, “U.S. to Send Additional Military Assets to Control Oil Fields in Syria: Reports,” Xinhua Net, October 25, 2019, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-10/25/c_138501561.htm or Liu, “U.S. to Send Additional Military Assets to Control Oil Fields in Syria: Reports,” China Daily, October 25, 2019, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201910/25/WS5db29847a310cf3e35573a61.html; “Donald Trump Must Rethink His Strategy on Syria,” South China Morning Post, October 14, 2019, https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3032753/donald-trump-must-rethink-his-strategy-syria.

[xxii] Amy Chew, “Southeast Asia on Alert for ISIS ‘Grand Agenda’ as Escaped Indonesian Jihadists in Syria Eye the Region,” South China Morning Post, October 19, 2019, https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3033658/southeast-asia-alert-isis-grand-agenda-escaped-indonesian;

[xxiii] Philip S. Davidson, “China’s Power: Up for Debate,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, 8:40-9:40, November 29, 2018, https://www.csis.org/events/chinas-power-debate-1; Patrick Shanahan, “Written Statement for the Record,” Senate Armed Services Committee, March 14, 2019, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Shanahan_03-14-19.pdf.

The featured photo shows Presidents Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Recep Erdogan at the Belt and Road international forum in Beijing, May 2017 (Photo: kremlin.ru)