Syria – Political solution rather than military intervention

September 19, 2013 by Timothy Beardson

China does not favour military intervention in Syria. It has had a long standing policy of opposing intervention in countries’ “domestic affairs” and avoiding involvement. Beijing has at various times opposed sanctions on – and hostile UN action towards – states such as Sudan, Zimbabwe, Burma and North Korea, as well as Syria.
There is a sense in the Anglo-Saxon media that China, Russia and Iran are in an extreme and minority position in the global response to events in Syria. And, further, this is part of an overall foreign policy of backing the wrong people. An authoritarian alliance has been mooted. Note has been taken of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation which embraces such states as China, Russia and Iran with several of the Central Asian countries.
However, China’s foreign policy has been evolving. It has supported sanctions now on a number of occasions. It no longer believes in strict non-intervention. It is beginning to sense that the world requires China to play a more constructive role in global affairs as it emerges as a more important power.
A survey of official pronouncements on Syria gives a clear picture. Beijing’s statements include it is “opposed to whoever uses chemical weapons,” its officials “always oppose the use of force in international relations,” and any unilateral US military strike is against “international law and the basic norms governing international relations.”  “We must also remain committed to a political solution.” A Chinese minister told the G20 that “military action would have a negative impact on the global economy, especially on oil prices – it will cause a hike in the oil price.”
Even in May, China said “military means cannot address the crisis, but would only lead to more conflict and bloodshed… (and urges) the Syrian government and the oppositions to assume responsibility for an immediate cease-fire, stop violence and start the political transition at an early date.”  “China has been keen to show it is not taking sides and has urged the Syrian government to talk to the opposition. It has also said a transitional government should be formed.”
President Xi Jinping has “urged a role for the UN Security Council in resolving the crisis” and Beijing has urged “a full and impartial investigation by UN chemical weapons inspectors in Syria into the attack, and has warned against pre-judging the results. It has also said that whoever used chemical weapons had to be held accountable”. China’s foreign ministry has urged an end to the war and violence and proposed a second international conference on Syria.
Beijing’s consistent message is that chemicals are bad, violence should stop, a military strike won’t work and if unilateral, is against international norms of behaviour. The UN should be involved. China doesn’t want to take sides. There should be talks between both sides aimed at securing a political solution.
While not clear that China’s advice is going to work, it should be noted that others share this view and it is not clear the US position would work either.
Syria is a confessional and cultural cocktail. Seventy-six percent are estimated to be Sunni Muslim. The other 24% are Alawites (and other Shia varieties), Druze and Christian. The Assad family are Alawite and a wide variety of religious minorities have celebrated their faith over the last few decades. Looking across the Middle East many of these groups have formed the view that any rise to power of a government representing the Sunni majority would have a high risk of ending the liberties of the minorities. Most have accordingly lent their passive or active sympathy to the Assad government.
Military intervention in Syria as recommended by President Obama and the British prime minister David Cameron is more complex when we note that there is no good side in this conflict. Not only has the Assad family ruled Syria brutally for two generations but the opposition heavily comprises Salafi Islamists, al Qaeda supporters and even those who go beyond al Qaeda. Senator John McCain in Washington recommends the US should set out “to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria“. This can only mean to support the Sunni rebels against the government forces.
President Obama says he wants to intervene only to punish President Assad for using chemical weapons but not get involved with the ground fighting. However, it is difficult to see such intervention as other than taking sides. The CIA currently trains rebel fighters in Jordan but furthermore there are now discussions in Washington of the possibility of sending “military trainers” to assist the rebels, which sounds reminiscent of Vietnam in the 1960s.
China’s opposition to military intervention in Syria is shared by many other leaders and countries, including not only Russia and Iran but also India, the President of the European Union and the Pope. It was interesting to hear Obama say in Sweden recently that “the world set a red line when governments representing 98% of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are (sic) abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war.” He seemed to overlook this power of numbers when the populations represented by this important group of states and leaders opposing military intervention in Syria comprises well over 60% of the world.
People’s Daily in Beijing has even said that US foreign policy toward Syria is driven by an attempt to use it as a proxy for its enemy Iran.
So there are some worrying and conflicting points here. Any call for military intervention will find it difficult not to affect the balance in a civil war between two bad sides. This is undesirable. Any attempt to impose a democratic solution in Syria risks precipitating a Sunni majority government with an intolerant approach to the nation’s minorities. As with most developing countries, the communitarian instincts are so strong that there can be democracy or there can be human rights but it is very difficult to have both.
Unsatisfactory though China’s recommendations may appear for resolving Syria’s internal problems, the conditions are such that it seems unlikely that bombs and bullets will provide a better answer. Beijing is not isolated in its foreign policy on Syria; it actually stands alongside the leaders of the vast majority of the world.

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