Chinese Admiral Visits Damascus to ‘Strengthen Cooperation’ with Assad

REPUBLIC OF KOREA, SEOUL : Rear Admiral Guan Youfei (C), director of Foreign Affairs Office of China's National Defence Ministry, arrives to attend annual working-level talks with South Korea at the Defence Ministry in Seoul on January 15, 2016. South Korean and Chinese defence officials met in Seoul on January …

Chinese Rear Admiral Guan Youfei paid a visit to Damascus this week, meeting with Syrian Defense Minister Lt. General Fahd Jassem al-Frejj in a bid to “strengthen cooperation” between the military commands of the two nations, as China’s Xinhua news agency put it.

Admiral Guan is the head of China’s office for international military cooperation, notes the UK Telegraphwhich reports he also met with Russia’s Lt. General Sergei Chvarkov during his visit.

According to the Telegraph, another Chinese media source, the Global Times, said Chinese advisers are “already on the ground in Syria to train regime forces in the use of Chinese-bought weapons including sniper rifles, rocket launchers, and machine guns.”

China has sold weapons to Syria, and provided diplomatic cover for the Assad regime at the U.N., for a long time, but Guan’s visit could be a signal that China contemplates “deeper involvement and a more strategic angle,” as Chatham House fellow Michal Meidan put it. She also suggested that China might be looking to give the U.S. a “diplomatic poke in the eye” for interfering with Beijing’s agenda in the South China Sea.

The Associated Press cites Wang Lian, of the School of International Studies at Peking University, saying China is interested in expanding cooperation with Syria but is “unlikely to provide substantial military support, much less send personnel to fight on behalf of the regime.”

Wang thought the Chinese military was interested in gaining a deeper understanding of “the state of turmoil in Syria” and is also following Russia’s moves in the Middle East closely.

Also, the AP notes China has its own Muslim problem, the restive Uighurs, and is worried Uighurs and others may pose a security risk upon returning to China after fighting for groups like ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

“China’s military involvement will still be low profile and limited. The goal is still to promote a political and peaceful settlement,” Liu Zhongmin, Middle East specialist at Shanghai International Studies University, told the South China Morning Post.

The SCMP also quotes Wang Jian of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences suggesting that China wants to protect its interests in the region and accumulate diplomatic credibility as a “responsible world power” by helping to broker a peace deal in Syria.

The Fiscal Times calls China’s involvement in Syria a “headache for the U.S.” and presenting a “major foreign policy conundrum for the Obama Administration,” as “three of the countries most resistant to the US on the global stage appear to be teaming up against a non-state actor that has frustrated the US for years.”

In other words, it’s going to look very bad for the United States if Russia and China team up with Bashar Assad to knock out the Islamic State and whatever al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria is calling itself these days.

“At first glance, it might seem like a lucky break for the US that three of its adversaries are combining to challenge a fourth,” the Financial Times observes. “However, the problem is that they are doing so in support of a Syrian regime that has brutally repressed a popular uprising through indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations, torture, and the use of banned chemical weapons, a regime that Obama has said must be removed.”

FT noticed Russian media is playing that angle hard, such as an headline hooting, “China to Play Greater Role in Syria While U.S. ‘Left Out.'”