Key point: Beijing is trying to define its role in the world.
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].”
Yet, this appraisal suggests that Russia has been winning this information war and reaping diplomatic benefits. It notes that the Syria operation has by now “successfully split the NATO camp [成功分化了北约阵营]” in that Turkey has gone from being an enemy to becoming a close friend of Russia. Coordination has been undertaken with countries, such as Israel, according to this analysis. Examples of Arab leaders thanking Putin are described. Moreover, the piece asserts that the Ukraine situation has taken on a much less urgent priority, as well. [乌克兰议题逐步谈话 不再重要].
In the end this Chinese assessment concludes without reservations that Russia’s “international position and influence has increased” in the wake of the Syria intervention. Syria is on a path toward stabilization, so it is claimed, and the Kremlin has also vanquished the opposition forces supported by the United States, to boot. The intervention amounts to a “great achievement” [重大贡献]. Credit is even given to Russia for “alleviating the European refugee crisis.”
Many readers will be offended by this Chinese analyst’s evidently impudent conclusions. Undoubtedly, this reflects a one-sided appraisal and also the controlled nature of Chinese media reporting. Syria does not seem to be anywhere near on the verge of peace and Russia’s intervention appears to have had numerous problems, including obviously excessive civilian casualties in Syria. Let’s also not forget the economic and human costs to Russia itself that are hardly negligible. After the last two decades of warfare in the Middle East that only seems to grow more chaotic, it seems a stretch bordering on absurdity to believe that any external power can successfully coax the region in a peaceful direction. The alternative of “disengagement” may well present the best alternative that allows local actors the autonomy to sort out their differences on their own.
Yet this Chinese assessment may well be more significant for what it says about China’s future foreign policy than anything it says about Syria, of course. As Beijing grasps to define its new role in the world, there will be many temptations for it to wield its new military power across the globe and especially in the vast, unstable area where it is helping to build a “Belt and Road.” The paradigm adopted from Russia’s intervention in Syria of “fighting terror” and simultaneously building support and self-confidence at home could become nearly irresistible to the Chinese leadership. But deploying its shiny military into situations far and wide around the world presents the road to perdition and could even significantly imperil the “Chinese dream” of national rejuvenation. Beijing would be much wiser to limit the scope of its expeditionary forces abroad and keep them cautiously under “blue helmets.”
Lyle J. Goldstein is professor of strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the United States Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He is also an affiliate of the new Russia Maritime Studies Institute at NWC. You can reach him at [email protected]. The opinions in his columns are entirely his own and do not reflect the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. government. This article first appeared in 2019.