Beijing will welcome the head of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), an umbrella group of Syrian opposition groups, this week to discuss political solutions to the ongoing civil war in Syria.
Recently-elected head of the SNC, Khaled Khoja, left for China on Tuesday. He will be visiting two weeks after Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem traveled to China to discuss peace talks with Syrian rebels. Khoja will be in China for four days and is expected to discuss grievances the opposition has with dictator Bashar al-Assad with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has provided few details on what its role will be in the civil war. “We believe that the future of Syria should be decided by the people of Syria, so China is now doing everything to move the Syrian issue along on the correct path of political dialogue as quickly as possible,” said spokeswoman Hua Chunying Tuesday.
“China’s position has received high appreciation and affirmation from the international community, particularly the Syrian people,” she added.
Khoja’s arrival in the Asian powerhouse will expand China’s role in the Middle East, which has up to now been a reserved one. While China has refused to engage in any military action in the region, despite being overtly targeted by the Islamic State terrorist group (ISIS), it has used its state propaganda arms to promote itself as the best mediating power to bring peace to Syria. “China’s recent invitations for a Syrian government representative and opposition party representative for talks show not only China’s willingness to promote peace talks and a resolution of the crisis, but also China’s commitment to its responsibilities as a major power,” an editorial in the state-run People’s Daily read in December.
The Islamic State has made concerted efforts to involve China in the wars underway in both Syria and Iraq. While ISIS has released Chinese-targeted propaganda since 2014, it has escalated the efforts to gain Chinese attention by beheading Chinese national Fan Jinghui and releasing a nasheed, or jihad song, in Mandarin, likely targeting China’s Mandarin-speaking Muslim Hui population. The Chinese government claims that up to 300 Muslim Uighurs, who do not speak Mandarin, have already joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
In their meeting with the Syrian Foreign Minister, Chinese officials announced a $6.17 million donation to the Syrian government for humanitarian aid purposes. The Syrian representatives, in turn, announced themselves “ready to participate in the inter-Syrian dialogue to be held in Geneva without foreign interference.” In the past, Assad has made this claim with the caveat that no “terrorist” groups be invited to talks, defining “terrorists” as practically all Syrian rebel groups.
While efforts to promote itself as the best equipped power to end the Syrian civil war escalated recently, Chinese officials have been arguing since October that “China has no self-interest in the Middle East, so China is willing to play a constructive role, on a fair and objective stance, in finding a political solution to hot spot issues.”
In Khoja, China will be welcoming to the discussion a relatively young dissident with a history of anti-Assad activity that goes back to Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez. Khoja is also an ethnic Turkmen—the first at the helm of the opposition coalition group—and runs the Syrian opposition group from within Turkish borders. This leaves him with certain sensibilities to the fight against both Assad and ISIS that are in concert with the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, including opposition to the presence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist terrorist organization, in the fight against ISIS.
The PKK works closely with the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) in Rojava (Kurdish Syria), militia groups that cooperate with the United States. The Turkish government considered the YPG and YPJ both terrorists groups as well, though the United States does not. The PKK is a U.S.-designated terrorist group.
How China’s diplomatic proximity to Russia—which has been staging attacks on Syrian rebel groups in the region while supporting the PKK—will affect their role in mediating between the Syrian government and an opposition group with ties to Turkey. China has vowed to enhance its cooperation with Russia in the realm of fighting terrorism in recent months. “[Chinese President] Xi [Jinping] said against the backdrop that tremendous changes have taken place in global anti-terrorism situation, China stands ready to work with the international community, including Russia, to combat terrorism and uphold the common interest of the world,” a report in Xinhua, a state run Chinese news outlet, noted in December.
With the news of Khoja’s visit on Tuesday, Xinhua has run an editorial praising Xi for expanding China’s influence abroad. “All his effort is not only for the Chinese dream but also for the shared destiny and future of the world as a whole,” the article claims, noting that Xi has made a total of “19 visits abroad, spending more than 133 days outside the country. The distance he travelled amounted to orbiting the Earth ten times.”
Observers appear skeptical that China can successfully mediate peace between the two groups. In a column in the South China Morning Post, Emanuele Scimia notes that China has failed in this arena before: “Over the past months, China has stepped forward to facilitate peace negotiations between the Afghan government in Kabul and the Taliban, but no tangible results have been achieved. On the contrary, the Taliban is now on the offensive both in northern and southern Afghanistan.” He adds that China’s clear unwillingness to participate militarily in Middle East struggles renders it significantly less influential than Russia, Turkey, or America.