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Why Has China Abandoned the Syrian 'Regime Change' Illusion?

Why Has China Abandoned the Syrian 'Regime Change' Illusion?

Thursday, 22 July, 2021 - 07:30
Chinese and Syrian businessmen set up their national flags during a meeting to discuss reconstruction projects in Syria, Beijing, China May 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Lee

The plan that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed to President Bashar al-Assad on July 17 was the third presented by Beijing in the last decade of the Syrian war. It reflects the gradual decline of the political ceiling, from talks of a “transitional governing body” in 2012 to calls for the need to “abandon the illusion of regime change” in Syria in 2021.

A year after the eruption of the protests, in March 2012, China presented its first political initiative, which was conveyed to the late Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem by his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi.

The initiative included an immediate, comprehensive, and unconditional cessation of all acts of violence by the Syrian government and the concerned parties, and a direct launch of a comprehensive political dialogue, without preconditions or prejudgments, between the Syrian government and the various parties under the impartial mediation of UN envoy Kofi Annan, in addition to a leading role by the United Nations in coordinating humanitarian relief efforts, respect for Syria’s sovereignty, rejection of military intervention, and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter.

As for the second Chinese initiative, it came when Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi attended an international-regional meeting that resulted in the “Geneva Declaration” in June 2012, which approved the formation of a “transitional governing body” in Syria.

Back then, the Chinese minister focused on four points: First, adherence to a political solution through a realistic political dialogue; second, strong support for Special Envoy Kofi Annan’s mediation efforts; third, respect for the independent choice of the Syrian people; and fourth, balancing the urgency of a political solution to the Syrian issue with patience.

Beijing developed these ideas into a four-point initiative, presented in November 2012, which stipulated: First, to gradually stop violence and cooperate with the efforts of the new envoy, Al Akhdar al-Ibrahimi; second, each party appoints its representatives who, with the help of al-Ibrahimi and the relevant international community organizations, will work out a road map for a political transition, through extensive consultations conducted by a transitional council that embraces the largest possible proportion of the conflicting parties; third, supporting al-Ibrahimi’s efforts to make real progress in implementing the Geneva Communiqué; and fourth, calling on all parties to take concrete steps to alleviate the human suffering in Syria.

Beijing’s approval of a “political transition” came in parallel with the visit of Syrian opposition figures, including Abdulaziz al-Khair, a leader in the Coordination Body, who has been missing since October 2012, and high-ranking Chinese meetings with UN envoys.

After a ten-year absence from Syria and the use of the veto right in the Security Council along with the Russian ally, Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Damascus a few days ago and met with President al-Assad, who had just assumed his fourth presidential mandate.

Wang Yi presented his new quadripartite plan, which stipulated:

- First, respect for Syria’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity, respect for the choice that the Syrian people accepted, abandoning the illusion of regime change, and allowing the Syrian people to independently determine their future and the fate of their country.

- Second, giving priority to the interest and prosperity of the Syrian people, accelerating the reconstruction process, immediately lifting all unilateral sanctions, and ending the economic blockade imposed on Syria.

- Third, maintaining a consistent position on effectively combating terrorism. China holds that all terrorist organizations on the UN Security Council list should be eliminated, with a clear rejection of double standards.

- Fourth, encouraging a comprehensive political solution and reconciliation, through a Syrian-led settlement and addressing differences between all factions.

But why has Beijing abandoned the “illusion of regime change”? Many factors prompted China to return politically to Syria. Those include field changes, stability on the three “zones of influence”, the intervention of the armies of five countries, concerns over the collapse of the “Syrian state” and chaos and an exacerbation of the economic and living crisis. This comes in addition to the growing role of the “Turkistan Islamic Army,” which includes about 2,500 Chinese “Uighur” fighters, who are deployed in northwest Syria near the Russian Hmeimim base.

Another factor is the decline of America’s role in the region and the possibility of its withdrawal from Iraq and Syria, as well as China’s desire to consolidate the strategic memorandum of understanding it signed with Iran, which included military, economic and political aspects, and cooperation in the areas of reconstruction, railways, oil, and ports, and the reconstruction of Syria and Afghanistan.

There is no doubt that Damascus is betting on the Chinese role, especially in the field of reconstruction, due to the US and European sanctions and the growing economic crises in the country. But this raises many questions: Will Russia or Iran accept an economic role for China and its “social engineering” in Syria after the military intervention of Tehran since 2013 and Moscow since 2015? Can China assume a real economic and political role without its military tools or adventures in this region? Will Chinese companies accept contracts in “little Syria” and abandon global markets, amid Western sanctions and Caesar’s Act?

Will China cross the Syrian minefield by siding only with Damascus, without taking into account the positions of other players? Will Beijing include Syria in the “Belt and Road” initiative?

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