China’s Interests in Syria and the Middle East – by Dr. Christina Lin

screen-shot-2016-11-13-at-6-10-25-pmChina’s Interests in Syria and the Middle East
By Dr. Christina Lin
Syria Comment – November 13, 2016
Interview with Dr. Christina Lin about China’s view of Syria, ISIS, Ughurs and Turkey
  • 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.

Comments (15)

Mjabali said:

Informative article/ interview… hoping it gets the approval of the children section…

November 14th, 2016, 9:09 am


Atassi said:

So based on this article China’s view and interest of Syria confined to security issues only ..LOL ///

November 14th, 2016, 12:04 pm


Mina said:

For the archive
Here is how Anne Barnard reported the reaction of the Syrian regime to Donald Trump, through the reaction of regime propagandist, Buthaina Sha`ban: “Syrian officials generally welcomed the result, and an adviser to Mr. Assad, Bouthaina Shaaban, said the government was ready to work with Mr. Trump.” So untrusting of Anne Barnard on Syria, I decided to unearth the original interview to see what Sha`ban had actually said. Here is what she said as carried by RT (my translation): “Al-Watan newspaper cited Sha`ban as saying…”Damascus hopes that US in the administration of Trump becomes an active member in the war on terrorism. She added Syria does not interfere in the results of the elections and who won in therm. What matters to Syrians is the policies that will be pursued by the new president….IF those policies are consistent with the aspirations of Syria, then Syria is open to cooperation with the US and other countries which respect the sovereignty of states and interests of people and does not interfere in their affairs…And Asad said in an interview on November 3rd, “We don’t trust their words. They are not honest, regardless what they say, whether it is good or bad”. How this becomes in the reporting of Anne Barnard “Syrian officials generally welcomed the result” is beyond me. But I know how Western correspondents like her report: they basically follow whatever cheerleaders of the Syrian rebels are writing in English and reproduce them. They never question what they write, and here she–not for the first time–fell in the trap of trusting Syrian rebel media and their cheerleaders. Notice that Barnard never once mentioned the love festival for Trump being produced daily in the mouthpiece of King Salman, Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat. Because that does not appear on the pages of cheerleaders of Syrian rebels on social media.

November 15th, 2016, 10:48 am


Ghufran said:

China’s interest in Syria may be only related to security issues especially the growth of jihadist movements in Syria and the region. Some of those jihadists are ethnic Chinese. Other than that China has no reason to invest political capital in Syria and prefer to watch the US and Russia fight over influence there.

November 15th, 2016, 12:52 pm



Countdown to Aleppo’s victory!!

November 17th, 2016, 9:47 am


Syrialover said:

“The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) is the most effective fighting force countering terrorists in Syria.” (Christina Lin, above)

Now we have the Chinese version of Syria dumb and lite.

China is another regime with an interest in endorsing the Putin/Assad model of brutal collective punishment and urban and economic destruction to hang on to power.

Watch that space. China watchers see it heading for a major debt and trade crisis, regional (Asian) conflict and strong currents of domestic instability.

Chinese jihadists are the least of its problems. Dr Lin would know that.

China and Russia are both too politically retarded and internally underdeveloped to match their leaders’ economic and geopolitical fantasies.

There is no better demonstration of this than their willingness to step into smouldering, abandoned ruins from the “Assad or we burn the country” policy, and stand beside a criminalized, universally reviled no-future tinpot dictatorship and beat their chests.

If their own populations had access to outside information, the Chinese and Russian leadership would find zero domestic support for their sordid activities in Syria. It would make no sense to their citizens and would be a source of dissent (if any debate or dissent were tolerated).

November 17th, 2016, 2:46 pm


Syrialover said:


What a mixed-up confusing post. Quoting Angry Arab, who is reverently quoting infamous Assad apparatchik Bouthaina Shaaban.

Bouthaina (botox) Shaaban is known for being the ugliest woman in the world, both inside and out. If there was a world championship for liars Dr BS wouldn’t be able to move she’d be wearing so many medals.

While Angry Arab is a wild-eyed, eccentric older guy with juvenile political beliefs.

Below isn’t a bad description of him (this was in 2012, and he’s since gotten even nastier on Syria):

“As’ad Abu Khalil [Angry Arab], who is only really “angry” if Arabs are being killed by some countries and not others, refers sarcastically to the “Syrian Revolution”. He’s even got a name now for people who don’t want Assad to rule the country anymore, “groupies”. Can this man get any sillier?” (

November 17th, 2016, 3:23 pm


Syrialover said:

They are saying Mitt Romney could possibly be the next US Secretary of State.

Wouldn’t that be nice!

In the past Romney has strongly rebuked Trump for playing pals with Putin, and has a low, low, low opinion of the little Russian civilian killer and his sleazy tribe of internet hackers.

Romney has also been a very fierce critic of Assad and slammed Obama for his weak stance on Syria.

If it’s true about Trump appointing him, it could be a smart move for the Donald. Romney is a highly respected and influential Republican figure. When he was the Republican presidential candidate in the previous election, he won many more votes than Trump did in this one.

They say above all Trump just wants to be liked. Even by Putin, but that’s no likely to last long if it means Trump losing “likes” from his own party.

November 17th, 2016, 7:17 pm


abd said:

What about well see in the feutiure the realty…that Iran well dominat over midleast.. Terror is terror.. You well see how Iran well destroy Israeil..

November 20th, 2016, 4:52 pm


Ghufran said:

There is no running away from the fact that this uprising is dominated (after getting hijacked ) by terrorists who are shelling schools and other civilian areas and performing summary executions against Syrians under their rule. When your friends are terrorists it does not matter who your enemy is.

November 21st, 2016, 9:43 pm


Syrialover said:

Too bad, Assad hopefuls and approvers. The news could be about to get worse.

There is now talk of General ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis being appointed Trump’s Secretary of Defense.

Mattis is famously mad like a fierce fighting dog on the matter of Iran.

“The collapse of the Assad regime, would be the biggest strategic setback for Iran in 25 years,” he told a Senate hearing in 2013.

He’s been pretty consistent on the need to deliver knockdown setbacks to Iran, revved up even more by Obama’s disastrous Iran nuclear deal.

This could be fun – but not for those relying on Iran to keep playing on the Putin/Assad team.

And without Iran in Syria, commentators say Putin would soon drop the ball and also quit the scene.

November 22nd, 2016, 6:42 am


ALAN said:

General ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis.. bla bla bla
you need to stop barking
If you are not able to defeat us, then bite your boots silently.

November 22nd, 2016, 5:33 pm


Syrialover said:

ALAN #12

I am not barking. But General Mad Dog Mattis is, and if he becomes Secretary of Defense he will be keen to start biting hard, especially Iran.

“Not able to defeat us”, you write. Interesting comment. What is there to defeat? Putin is there to be humiliated and put in a difficult position, and there are powerful forces in Trump’s workplace, in his party in Congress, who will be working for this.

Putin and co are so stupid, with their lies and sordid, criminal behaviour, they do not understand how things work. They seem to think that everyone else is as stupid as them.

Take Iran out of Syria and little Putin will wet his pants, as Pussy Riot says in that song.

Anti-Putin Mitt Romney as Secretary of State and Anti-Iran Mad Dog Mattis as Secretary of Defense. Will this happen? Will this be history’s way of correcting the weak, indecisive Obama phase?

This could be fun.

November 23rd, 2016, 7:46 am


ALAN said:

Realy we do not care about how your mechanisms are working. If you think along with the Mad jackals to repeat Hitler, then you’ll be simply multiplied by zero. then will come an endless silence.

November 23rd, 2016, 3:28 pm


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