Now Is the Time to Worry About ‘China in Syria’

November 18, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: DefenseForeign PolicyChinaSyriaMilitary

Now Is the Time to Worry About ‘China in Syria’

Unintended and unexpected consequences are inherent to war, and more so to a strategy of war favoring airstrikes as a way to minimize the number of soldiers on the ground.

Speaking of Syria in the last Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee, Dr. Ben Carson said, “You know, the Chinese are there.” In the days that followed he was roundly ridiculed. The White House press secretary said that Dr. Carson’s comments left him “speechless.” National Security Advisor Susan Rice stated, "I really can’t speak to what he was referring to, but unless you’re talking about having a diplomatic presence, I’m not sure what he was referencing." Not only is it correct that the Chinese are in Syria, but it is also correct that this fact deserves attention now, after the attacks in Paris, when the United States and its allies seem ready to bolster the fight against the Islamic State.

Syria’s leader is holed up in the capital. No plausible scenario has been presented in which that capital, with or without its current president, will again govern the full extent of terrain the nation once comprised. The massacre and exodus of its population have grown common. In response, U.S.-led forces are poised to ramp up airstrikes as a means of waging war while minimizing the number of boots on the ground. With these broad strokes, Syria begins to resemble the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s.

Of course, it was also during the war for Kosovo, specifically over Belgrade in May 1999, that the U.S.-led NATO force bombed the Chinese embassy there, killing three and setting off one of the worst diplomatic rows between the United States and China in recent history. Protests broke out in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Shenyang. Angry mobs amassed outside of the U.S. embassy. The American ambassador at the time telephoned CBS News from inside the building to say, "The problem . . . is that this whole thing could spin out of control. . . . We're just hoping that the police can continue to control them." The bombing in Belgrade quickly bred speculation in China that the attack was intentional, linked to a range of supposed U.S.-led plots from upending Beijing on the heels of the Falun Gong protests earlier that year to strengthening Washington’s hand in negotiations over China’s ascension to the WTO. Chinese vice president Hu Jintao went on national television to call the airstrike “barbaric.”

To read the reports of the time, which catalog the errors made ahead of the inadvertent strike, one cannot help but think of Syria today. “NATO was under tremendous pressure to escalate its war against Yugoslavia,” reported the New York Times. Yet, “when the bombing began on March 24, NATO had only 219 targets for all of Serbia,” the reporters note. There was such a scramble for new targets in the weeks leading up to the bombing that “a cook and a motor pool worker with sufficiently high security clearances were drafted into NATO's targeting office in Mons, Belgium, to help with paperwork on potential missions.” Within days of the start the number of targets dwindled. NATO’s supreme commander at the time, Gen. Wesley Clark, asked why he was not given 4,000 verified targets, eventually insisting on 2,000—“the goal became an obsession” within NATO, the New York Times reported, “derided by targeting officials as 'T2K.'” This helter-skelter to increase the number of potential targets led to the incorrect targeting of the Chinese embassy in May 1999. Haste overran accuracy, and the result was “error piled upon incompetence piled upon bad judgment,” the reporters concluded.

Airstrikes over Syria, which have thus far targeted ISIS in the east and north rather than Syrian president Bashar al Assad in Damascus, have up until now proceeded with notable caution. Earlier this year it was reported that nearly 75 percent of the strike-sorties sent out over Syria returned without firing a weapon. “The Coalition targeting process minimizes collateral damage and maximizes precise effects on Daesh,” explained Brig. Gen. Thomas Weidley in June. “Air crews are making smart decisions and applying tactical patience every day.” A call to ramp up the strikes after the Paris attacks undoubtedly tests such “tactical patience.” As Belgrade ‘99 shows, the rush to strike at the expense of accuracy can have follow-on effects, either in theater or half a world away.

While there is a Chinese embassy in Damascus, as there was in Belgrade then, the point is not to posit a scenario in which any diplomatic fixture is stuck inadvertently. That exercise would entirely miss the larger issue.

The bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade falls within a larger category of unintended and unexpected consequences inherent to war, and more so to a strategy of war favoring airstrikes as a way to minimize the number of soldiers on the ground. This is as true today over a fracturing Syria as it was in 1999 over a fracturing Yugoslavia. While targeting and reconnaissance technology has advanced since then, one need look back no further than the bombing of the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on October 3 of this year to see that mistakes and miscalculations endure.

The simultaneous attacks in Paris on Friday roughly between Gare du Nord and Notre Dame have been clarifying and emboldening to western priorities. French President Holland said after the attacks that France "will be merciless toward the barbarians of Islamic State group" and that his nation ”will act by all means anywhere, inside or outside the country.” His words are commendable and correct.

Defeating ISIS, however, will necessarily be imperfect in practice. Inadvertent and unexpected outcomes will occur that are as unthinkable as what happened in 1999. This is to contend with reality, but it is also in no way to diminish defeating ISIS.  

John Richard Cookson is an assistant managing editor at the National Interest. You can follow him @JRCookson.