By Logan Pauley
There were high hopes on Feb. 24 when the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2401 for a 30-day ceasefire in Syria. But after another month of persistent violence, it is clear that the ceasefire has failed, friction between the United States and Russia has intensified, and China is outmaneuvering its fellow peers and gaining influence in Syria. If the United States aims to bring about peace in Syria and maintain its presence in the country’s future, increased cooperation with China and more consistent involvement in conflict on the ground is needed.
China’s voting history: the uniqueness of UNSCR 2401
China’s recent maneuvers in UNSC voting stem from a misstep, or perhaps a miscalculation, from years prior.
Responding to regional and international calls for military assistance in the Libyan crisis, China—and Russia—abstained on Mar. 2011 for UNSC votes endorsing NATO-led humanitarian intervention. After NATO overthrew Libya’s Gaddafi in 2011, China suffered on two fronts. Economically, its bilateral trade with Libya dropped from US$6.6 billion in 2011 to US$2.7 billion in 2015. And diplomatically, while Western powers gained influence in Libya, China was criticized in international media for not playing a greater role in Tripoli’s liberation. Among the lessons China drew from this were that intervention served as a pretext for regime change and that foreign interference in Libya diminished China’s presence in Tripoli. For this reason, the Libyan case compelled China to take a more unwavering stance on state sovereignty and intervention.
Following UNSCR 2401’s passing, Chinese Representative to the U.N. Ma Zhaoxu declared that a solution depends upon a “Syrian-owned and -led political process.” China’s mission in pushing this narrative and voting in favor of UNSCR 2401 was more to rejuvenate the international community’s collective responsibility to respond to breaches of the peace and less to respond to the specific situation in Eastern Ghouta. In fact, during the initial vote on a Syrian ceasefire, Representative Ma did not explicitly refer to Syria a single time, but rather cautioned that interference in sovereign states “must not be permitted.” And while China has avoided referring to Eastern Ghouta, the people of Syria continue to suffer.
The aftermath of 2401’s passing
Since the ceasefire began, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported more than 1350 civilian casualties within Syria’s borders. The Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC) recorded 18 violations of UNSCR 2401 on the ceasefire’s second day alone. While VDC data exhibit a decrease in civilian casualties from Feb. 25 to Mar. 7, the International Committee for the Red Cross has halted assistance until violence has eased following 80 civilian casualties on Mar. 5.
To respond to the unabated violence, an emergency UNSC meeting was held on Mar. 12. While Russia stated that UNSCR 2401 did not intend for “immediate ceasefire,” Ambassador Haley expressed that the U.S. has drafted a new resolution that calls for exactly that. Knowing that Russia will presumably veto a stricter ceasefire resolution, China will likely abstain if the United States puts forward a new draft resolution and will use the abstention as a means to push an image of Beijing as a responsible international stakeholder.
What does this mean for China?
To advance this image of a responsible stakeholder, Ambassador Ma has not addressed either U.S. or Russian antagonism in UNSC discussions on Syria, but rather has called upon its peers to “strive for a world of universal security through joint contributions and sharing.”
Pushing for joint collaboration in Syria helps Beijing bolster a favorable image of its expansion in the Middle East, take an early lead in Syrian reconstruction, and gain much-needed sway to legitimize its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Syria is particularly valuable to BRI as it sits adjacent to branches of the initiative’s “China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor” and presents more direct access to the Mediterranean Sea than going through Turkey.
Keeping Assad in power also affords China close connection to valuable bilateral trade and reconstruction deals. For example, Chinese tech giant Huawei has committed to rebuilding the entirety of Syria’s telecommunications system and the CCP also holds large stakes in the two largest Syrian oil companies. These large-scale investment promises have made it evident that China is the clear frontrunner in leading post-conflict Syria’s economic redevelopment.
What does this mean for Syria’s future?
The crux of UNSCR 2401’s inability to pause violence in Syria is threefold. First, other state actors’ military agendas in Syria have shifted following the strides made in expelling ISIS. Where the U.S.-led coalition has significantly decreased their military involvement, Russian and Syrian state militias see the door wide-open for stamping out myriad skirmishes. Second, the selectively expansive nature of the resolution’s text allows for member states to continue violence against “terrorists” even if not under the purview of U.N. recognition. Third, as U.S.-Russian antagonism exacerbates, UNSC meetings turn into a mutual pointing-of-fingers, subverting resolution efficacy.
The United States has alternative methods it can take to improve its position in Syria and help bring peace to Syrian civilians. For one, the United States could partner with China to call for a Syrian-led political process. Jointly pushing for a political process with China would make the United States’ narrative more consistent and would put more pressure on Russia to cooperate with the international community. The United States could also look to increase its involvement in Syria’s post-conflict reconstruction. By doing so, U.S. calls for peace would be backed by financial support, which would compete against China’s current dominance over Syria’s future.
However, Washington faces significant hurdles in collaborating with Beijing and changing its identity in Syria. While collaboration with Beijing may appear to aid BRI’s development, Washington’s current diametric opposition of Moscow is the main driver of Beijing’s growing influence in Syria. By making strategic concessions, Washington actually stands to increase its soft power. Improving U.S. clout in Syria is vital, as Washington’s missteps in counterbalancing Moscow—such as arming Syrian Kurds—have diminished U.S. authority on the ground and in UNSC meetings. Regaining that authority is the necessary next step for the United States to affect change on supplying humanitarian aid and bringing about peace in Syria.
Nevertheless, knowing that Russia will likely oppose a new draft resolution, China will continue injecting investment and pushing an image of defender of the peace while cementing favorable relations that lend to BRI’s legitimization. While UNSCR 2401 has escalated the conflict between the United States and Russia in Syria, China has capitalized on an opportunity to appear as the only international stakeholder that actually cares about peace and security. If the United States wants to change its narrative, U.S. decision-makers can take advantage of the door China is opening to bring peace to the people of Syria.
Logan Pauley is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow with the East Asia program at Stimson. His research focuses on U.S.-China relations particularly in regard to Syria, conflict, global governance, international organizations, and responsibility.