Categorized | China, Conflict, Middle East, Russia, Syria, UN, World

Explaining the China-Russia Partnership in Syria

Image courtesy of Chaoyue Pan

‘War is the continuation of politics by other means’. This well-known quote from 19th century Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz epitomises the Russian and Chinese role in the Syrian conflict, which is now in its tenth year.

The conflict began in March 2011 after pro-democracy protests in Syria were brutally crushed by the Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad. Since then, the civil war which emerged has become a distinctly international affair, with foreign powers using Syria as a political (and military) battleground through which to pursue their strategic interests. The efforts of Russia and China in particular have been critical in consolidating the Assad regime’s control over Syria. In July, Russia and China vetoed a UN resolution to extend a deal allowing aid deliveries to north-western Syria through Turkey – a decision which has cut off aid to roughly 1.3 million Syrians dependent on essential food and medicine.

The Syrian civil war has left more than 380,000 people dead and more than half of the population have been uprooted from their homes. With this latest joint veto blocking the transfer of humanitarian aid, the question re-emerges: why have Russia and China so consistently stood behind the Assad government?

The Sino-Russian entente over Syria is underpinned by a distinct commitment to sovereignty. Russian and Chinese officials often speak of the need to preserve Syria’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. For one, this entails opposing external interventions which they perceive as violating Syria’s sovereignty. On the more definitive end of Sino-Russian commitments to sovereignty lies their opposition to overt Western calls for Assad to step down. More generally, it also includes opposition to initiatives like cross-border aid, which Russia and China perceive as illegitimate under international law. Moscow and Beijing argue that aid is co-opted by those they describe as ‘international terrorists and fighters’ and that it should instead be delivered in coordination with the government in Damascus.

Alongside opposing external interventions, Russia and China’s policy in Syria has sought to strengthen the centralised authority of the Syrian government. This policy intent was seen with the advent of Russian airstrikes in 2015, which have been critical in consolidating Assad’s control over most of Syria’s territory. China has kept more of a low profile in avoiding direct military action but has nevertheless bolstered the Assad regime through major investments in Syria’s economy, with a large stake in its post-war reconstruction.

Looking at Sino-Russian policy in Syria, it clearly advocates for a particular type of sovereignty – traditional Westphalian sovereignty. This kind of sovereignty refers to a state having exclusive control over its internal affairs and the exclusion of external actors from its territory. Westphalian sovereignty is often framed in opposition to what Stephen Krasner terms ‘interdependence sovereignty’ – the ability of states to regulate the flow of information, ideas, goods, people or capital across their own borders. Yet the Syrian conflict, with its international scope involving various states and armed groups, shows how both forms of sovereignty can become deeply intertwined.

Where Russia and China are dedicated to preserving a territorial, Westphalian conception of sovereignty in Syria, some have argued that this contradicts their policies closer to home. Russia’s recognition in 2008 of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as separate states independent from Georgia and its incorporation of Crimea in 2014 have been viewed by some as a violation of the principle of sovereign equality of states which Russia espouses in Syria. China has also been criticised for adopting an expansionist approach to sovereignty over matters such as its relations with Taiwan, its military build-up in the South China Sea and its internment of an estimated one million Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

In his book Sovereignty: Organised Hypocrisy, Krasner suggests that individual states, particularly the most powerful ones, have the freedom to select those aspects of sovereignty which support their national interests, whilst excluding elements which constrain their regional and international actions. For Krasner sovereignty is less a set of fixed, enduring principles than a set of loose conventions for state behaviour. In this way, we can see how Russia and China can strictly defend the sovereignty of the Syrian government – and use it as legal justification for their actions in Syria – while playing fast and loose with the application of sovereignty closer to home, in their respective ‘spheres of influence’.

Despite how it is framed, Russia and China’s close guarding of sovereignty – in Syria and closer to home – is often driven by considerations of national security. Both powers are especially concerned with preventing the spillover of terrorist attacks from Islamist groups in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Russia is constantly anxious that militant Sunni Islamist groups fighting Assad in Syria are recruiting and supporting fighters from Russia’s underbelly in the North Caucasus region. Since the Arab Spring in 2011, Russia has feared that the breakdown of secular state structures across the Middle East, combined with the spread of Sunni Islamist networks, could threaten its security at home.

The Chinese government for its part has been put on high alert by the estimated 5,000 Uighurs who have fled to Syria to fight for militant groups like the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). This comes after a number of terror attacks in recent years by Uighur militants within China.

Ultimately, Russia and China are quick to forcefully defend their sovereign right to confront these threats because they believe that what happens in Syria has critical implications for security and stability in their own countries.

The Sino-Russian role in Syria is also a product of their broader strategic partnership. Whilst not a formal alliance, their relationship has grown extensively since the Ukraine crisis of 2014 and Western sanctions on Russia. To survive the confrontation with the West, Russia needed a partner. China, with its rapidly growing economy and like-minded approach to sovereignty and non-interference, seemed a natural ally. Both powers have increased their military cooperation, deepened bilateral trade and investment and established new international institutions to challenge the Western-dominated international order. Although many have noted the power imbalance in the relationship in favour of China, this has not proven much of an issue in Syria.

Beijing’s policy in the UN Security Council is normally cautious and pragmatic, preferring to abstain on votes. Yet for resolutions regarding Syria it has used the veto nine times since 2011, always in support of Russia. These vetoes have blocked resolutions calling for investigations into alleged war crimes in Syria, the imposition of sanctions on the regime and the continuation of cross-border aid.

There is a strong convergence of Russian and Chinese interests in Syria, with China all too willing to let Russia take the political lead whilst it focuses on economic investment and bringing Syria into the orbit of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Syria poses a fundamental choice for Russia and China between preserving state sovereignty and the status quo or banking on an unpredictable future regime. That regime would likely prove to be a less amenable partner than Assad and may threaten their broader interests in the region. The Sino-Russian preference for the status quo in Syria has been an almost decade-long endeavour. With these latest vetoes on aid, as well as Assad’s recent victory in parliamentary elections, it seems unlikely that Russia and China will abandon their interests in Syria anytime soon.

Image courtesy of Chaoyue Pan. [CC BY NC-ND 2.0]

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About Nicholas Pearce

Nicholas holds a degree in International Relations and Modern History from the University of St Andrews. During his time at university he has studied abroad at Renmin University in Beijing, China and worked briefly in Abu Dhabi. He is particularly interested in Middle Eastern history and politics.

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