China Is Studying Russia's Syrian Gambit

A Russian battle tank fires during a demonstration at the international military-technical forum "ARMY-2016" in Moscow region, Russia, September 6, 2016. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev

Beijing may take lessons from the Kremlin’s new paradigm for military intervention.

It has long been recognized that the closer alignment between Moscow and Beijing that goes back nearly three decades now provides each with ample political and diplomatic benefits. A less well explored aspect of the relationship could examine how these partners learn from one another in various domains, including in the crucial area of strategy. I have pointed out in this forum before that Chinese strategists have looked carefully at the war in Ukraine and the related Crimea annexation. This edition of Dragon Eye takes a close look at a Chinese assessment of Russia’s military intervention in Syria.

China’s interpretation of the Syrian War could turn out to be quite significant. I have recently argued in that Beijing could play a major role as one among several disinterested (and thus neutral) major powers in helping to fashion a diplomatic solution to the Gordian knot that is the Syria situation today. Such a role would be quite consistent with its ambitions to be a genuinely global power, providing global public goods for international security, and simultaneously facilitating the opening of vast trade corridors spanning Eurasia. Yet, there is a potentially darker side of China’s examination of the Syrian War. Indeed, there is a danger revealed in this late 2017 study published in the journal Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies [俄罗斯东欧中亚研究] of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Put simply, that danger  is that Chinese strategists could conclude that the Russian war in Syria provides a valuable paradigm for possible future Chinese uses of force in distant theaters as “anti-terrorism military operations [反恐军事行动].”

This treatment of Russia’s war in Syria assesses the intervention as providing “numerous benefits [多红利],” over and above speeding the destruction of ISIS. The intervention, according to this rendering, also significantly increased Russia’s standing in the world, altered the international system, increased Russians’ self-confidence, and also “seized the initiative in the struggle with the West [赢得了对西方斗争的主动].” The author characterizes the Kremlin’s actions against Ukraine in 2014 as “resolute [毅然决定],” but also notes that Russia suffered serious economic consequences as its trade fell off precipitously, so that the poverty level exceeded 15 percent of the Russian population, as related in this Chinese study. Thus, it is recognized that President Vladimir Putin made the ruling to intervene in force in Syria “… against the complex background of Russia confronting relatively difficult external and internal” circumstances. [面临内外交困的复杂背景]”

It is noted that the Syrian War has afforded Moscow a “test of the results of its military building program in recent years and the results of reforms [检验了今年来军队建设与改革的成果].” At the grand strategic level, the Chinese strategist suggests that the Kremlin views Syria as its “advanced post [前哨]” near the gate of the eastern Mediterranean. Thus, the intervention is also interpreted as confronting NATO pressure against Russia’s southern flank. The piece, moreover, lays out the case for why Russia’s intervention could be legal, while the U.S.-led coalition “has not received either the agreement of the UN Security Council, nor the blessing of the Syrian government.” The Chinese assessment also sounds a bit naïve in wholeheartedly embracing the Kremlin’s explanation that Russia “…is only fighting terrorism, and is not supporting any particular political force …”

Addressing momentarily the arguments of skeptics, this analysis explains that “… for Russia, it is important that it not be drawn into a long war…” It is noted that the West has begun to talk about Russia’s “second Afghanistan [第二个阿富汗].” But the author sees Moscow executing a “new type of war [新型战争],” relying on such methods as long distance precision strikes, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), surprise, and signals intelligence. Putin is cited approvingly as underlining the importance of preemptive attack against international terrorists [普京表示先发制人是打击国际恐怖主义唯一正确的途径]. The piece suggests that Putin has the backing of a broad internal consensus in Russia to fight against terrorism, perhaps arising from the fact cited by the author that Russia is a country that has suffered greatly at the hands of terrorists. By relentlessly fighting against terrorism, the author explains, Moscow has been able to portray itself as “the real friend of the Arab World. [阿拉伯世界的真朋友]” Moreover, Russia’s Syrian War has, according to this Chinese assessment, “broken the West’s hegemonic position in the region.”

One of the most interesting sections of this paper is an evaluation of the information war about Syria that has been underway between Russia and the West. The author notes that the West led by the United States has used “all means available,” to unleash propagandistic attacks “to smear Russia to the highest degree [最大程度地抹黑俄]” with the hope of sparking a “‘colored revolution’ that overthrows Putin… [颜色革命, 推翻普京].” The paper even goes so far as to tabulate (literally in a table) almost a dozen discreet efforts to paint Russia as a “wicked imperialist power [邪恶帝国]” as a part of the “information war” [信息战].”

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