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Syria: Peace Still On Table As China Scrambles To Set Up Talks

Global Times
August 14, 2012

Peace still on table in Syria as China scrambles to set up talks
By Gao Lei

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The US and some Western and Gulf countries are now exploring the option of imposing a no-fly zone in Syria, which, as witnessed in Libya, is an important step to enable foreign military intervention. China will need this mediation opportunity to counter that idea and to give undecided countries second thoughts on which approach is more feasible.

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According to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Buthaina Shaaban, special envoy for and political and media advisor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has been invited to Beijing Tuesday. The ministry also stated that it will invite members of the Syrian opposition to come to Beijing on a later date.

These moves are widely believed to be aimed at persuading the Syrian sides to get back to the negotiation table and solve their differences through a political solution. But such hopes suffered a heavy blow after UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan quit his job earlier this month. This has prompted observers to question the effectiveness of China’s mediation efforts.

China’s influence in the Middle East is certainly weaker than other major world powers like the US and Russia. It’s natural that there are doubts on what China can achieve through its talks with the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition. China’s efforts will not bear fruits instantly after just one round of talks.

However, China will keep trying. Solving the Syrian crisis through a political solution has always been China’s position. It will work to explore every possibility, however thin.

Though Annan has left the special envoy post, the UN hasn’t halted its mission. It has been actively seeking a replacement for Annan. The leaders of some Western countries, like French President François Hollande, have also agreed to solve the Syrian crisis through talk rather than war.

For China, a major supporter of the UN mission, its mediation efforts this time are intended to send a bold signal to the international community that the possibility of a political solution is still on the table, and that China is determined to continuously work with the UN to broker such a deal in Syria.

The US and some Western and Gulf countries are now exploring the option of imposing a no-fly zone in Syria, which, as witnessed in Libya, is an important step to enable foreign military intervention. China will need this mediation opportunity to counter that idea and to give undecided countries second thoughts on which approach is more feasible.

There are several issues that will pose serious challenges to efforts to broker a political solution.

First, making a political solution effective will require the cooperation of all parties in Syria. But at this stage, the will to get back to the negotiation table is weak on both sides. They have been pouring more efforts onto the battlefield than in setting up talks, because both believe that victory is within reach. The longer they are at war, the harder it will be for them to talk.

Second, the largely divided opposition makes it difficult for China or the UN to carry out effective mediation work. For instance, there is confusion in China as to which opposition group the Chinese government should make contact with.

While the Syrian National Council, based mainly outside Syria, is widely perceived as a representative of the rebel movement, does it truly have authority over groups and factions that have been operating inside Syria like the Free Syrian Army? Should China’s mediation also include representatives from other opposition groups?

While China is making its efforts, some countries are paving the way for military intervention, including supplying arms. The more weapons the opposition receives, the more confident they grow of an ultimate military triumph.

The opposition will increasingly prefer war over talks, but Assad won’t easily surrender either. This will eventually deadlock both sides in a cycle of conflict, blocking the way to a peaceful solution and risking more people’s lives.

Due to China’s lack of influence and channels to present its argument in full, its struggle to stop bloodshed in Syria has been constantly misinterpreted by some countries that are willing to throw Assad out at any cost and have been actively promoting their stance to the international community.

This will not only undermine China’s effort but even leave China isolated. Chinese policymakers should learn from this, and try to win understanding and support to its stance on Syria through various international platforms.

For instance, China can put forward this issue at developing country-orientated platforms like the Non-Aligned Movement or BRICS.

Most developing countries these days know that political reforms are a much better option than revolution induced by foreign intervention. China’s stance will win support there relatively easily.

By gathering such supports, China will not only find itself better positioned when confronted by similar issues, but also draw more nations to defend the UN principles from being violated by a few super powers.

The article was compiled by Global Times reporter Gao Lei based on an interview with He Wenping, director of the African Studies at the Institute of West Asian and African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

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