As if the multi-party war in Syria weren’t complicated enough, it now appears that the People’s Republic of China has decided to take a more active role in the conflict, providing increased humanitarian assistance and possibly military training to Syrian forces, according to China’s state-run media outlet Xinhua.
China’s announcement that it is increasing its commitment to the Assad regime comes just a day after Russia announced that it had launched strikes against ISIS from an airbase inside the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Combined, these two events create a major foreign policy conundrum for the Obama administration, as three of the countries most resistant to the US on the global stage appear to be teaming up against a non-state actor that has frustrated the US for years.
At first glance, it might seem like a lucky break for the US that three of its adversaries are combining to challenge a fourth. However, the problem is that they are doing so in support of a Syrian regime that has brutally repressed a popular uprising through indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations, torture, and the use of banned chemical weapons, a regime that Obama has said must be removed.
The Xinhua report said that Guan Youfei, director of the Office for International Military Cooperation of China's Central Military Commission, met Syrian Defense Minister Fahad Jassim al-Freij to discuss expanding a relationship that has so far been more low-key.
“China and Syria's militaries have a traditionally friendly relationship, and China's military is willing to keep strengthening exchanges and cooperation with Syria's military," Guan said, according to Xinhua.
A decision by China to increase its involvement in Syria would necessarily require closer cooperation between Beijing and Moscow, because Russian forces have been in Syria propping up the regime of Bashar al-Assad for nearly a year now, mainly through air and naval power.
In a three-way war, Assad is fighting rebel groups that oppose his increasingly brutal regime at the same time that he is fighting the terror group ISIS, which holds territory in Syria. Some of the rebel groups fighting Assad are simultaneously fighting ISIS.
Iran, where Shia Islam dominates, is a dedicated foe of ISIS, a terror group that holds that Sunni Islam is the only true form of the religion. ISIS holds that all Shia are apostates worthy of death if they refuse to convert.
Russia’s state-controlled media immediately jumped on the possibility that China’s increased involvement in the conflict suggested a new alliance.
“China to Play Greater Role in Syria While US ‘Left Out,’ trumpeted RT.com. The Kremlin-backed site added, “Are we seeing the start of a new anti-Islamic State coalition with Russia, Iran and China’s involvement in Syria? How could it influence the balance of power in the region? What reaction could be expected from the West, particularly from the countries involved in Syria?”
Immediate reaction from the White House seems unlikely, but the same doesn’t go for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has been a frequent critic of the Obama administration’s policies in the Middle East.
However, the Trump campaign’s path on this question isn’t obvious, either. Trump has spent much of his time on the campaign trail calling for the US to cooperate with Russia in the battle against ISIS. But he has also repeatedly attacked the Iranian regime and has made criticism of the Chinese government a standard talking point on the stump.
Complicating matters further is a spate of news stories suggesting that Trump’s campaign chair, Paul Manafort, has been a paid advocate of a Russia-friendly political party in Ukraine, whose leader was overthrown in a popular uprising in 2014. Among the allegations leveled against Manafort is that he organized protests against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization -- something that could be seen as working against the interests of the US, which is a member of the NATO alliance.
The Trump campaign, meanwhile, is in a state of turmoil after a major staff shakeup was announced Tuesday night.
All told, it might be for the best if neither the White House nor the Trump campaign responds to the latest news out of Syria in a hurry.