With its economic clout, and experience in global healthcare and humanitarian assistance, Beijing could make a big difference for people suffering in a civil war that’s displaced millions and caused hundreds of thousands of casualties. Vibhore Singh outlines how.
The horrific images from the aftermath of the 4 April chemical attack at Khan Shaykhun — showing civilians choking and foaming at the mouth, medics struggling to revive them, utter chaos in the hospitals, and dead children — are still fresh in our memories.
Sadly, for humanitarian workers in Syria, these scenes are an accepted reality rather than an aberration in a war that marked its sixth anniversary in March. The US administration saw the chemical attack as an opportunity to distinguish itself from its predecessors, launching Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat Airbase two days later.
Since then, the UN headquarters in New York has witnessed a diplomatic slugfest and blame-game. This too has unfortunately become a common sight in matters concerning Syria at the UN, with Security Council members placing strategic interests before humanitarian concerns, and accusing each other of flouting international laws.
However, even with this background of scepticism and denunciation, a silver lining does emerge from time-to-time. These include the numerous Security Council resolutions concerning humanitarian aid, granting access to humanitarian workers, civilian evacuations, and aid delivery. Even though unanimous adoption hasn’t translated into action on the ground, it does provide an area where international powers can coordinate their efforts to put a stop to this deluge of human suffering.
Domestic and geopolitical restrictions, however, have ensured that there is a dearth of leadership in this arena. So for a rising power like China, showcasing leadership in civilian protection has tangible strategic benefits. And there is growing evidence that China’s leaders are cognisant of these opportunities. One such indication came in January when President Xi Jinping spoke at the UN Office at Geneva. He underlined the importance of the non-militarisation of humanitarian assistance and emphasised the responsibility of current the generation to care for future generations.
The Syrian crisis, which is adversely impacting the future of eight million children, two million of them refugees, provides an opportune ground for President Xi Jinping to put words into action. The Chinese government, without putting its own citizens at risk, can look to the following actions to protect civilians and help build a better future in Syria.
The first area is the establishment of Demilitarised and Neutralised Zones (DNZs), as seen recently in South Sudan. These zones are covered under international humanitarian law and are administered by International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC). DNZs were also used during the Bangladesh and Yugoslavian wars. Leveraging its experience of working closely with the ICRC in South Sudan, China can step forward to make DNZs a possibility in Syria.
Another factor in favour of this option is that China was not a party to the Syrian Peace talks held in Astana and Geneva earlier this year. Both these forums focused on supporting peaceful political transition in Syria. They didn’t enjoy much success, though, with negotiating parties airing more differences than common ground.
In Xie Xiaoyan, the first Chinese envoy for mediating the Syrian crisis, China has a career diplomat who can direct Chinese diplomatic and financial resources to attain an observer status at future peace talks. China would then be in a position to potentially build political consensus for the establishment of DNZs in Syria. China should make it clear to countries hosting Syrian refugee or asylum-seekers that DNZs would serve the core purpose of protecting civilians and shouldn’t be seen by host countries as a justification for tightening border controls.
The second area for potential action is in health.
In April, the World Health Organization renewed its call for the international community to support health aid in Syria. The organisation has reported alarming drops in the number of specialised medical professionals, ambulances and lifesaving medicines. The destruction of critical health infrastructure due to fighting has contributed to the fact that wounded Syrians face permanent disability and the population is susceptible to chronic diseases and outbreaks in the absence of drinking water and sanitation facilities.
China has been a major player in the global health arena on the African continent over the past few decades. Through its Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, Beijing has forged several health assistance cooperation instruments with African nations and the success of these programs has contributed significantly to China’s soft power in the region.
China can enter into a similar partnership with the Syrian government and prominent opposition groups, bringing together Chinese expertise in resuscitating domestic healthcare infrastructure. This, in turn, would help in bolstering local drug production and improve medical care, China’s involvement in domestic medical infrastructure management would act as a deterrent for Syrian government forces targeting hospitals in rebel-held areas.
The third area is trade and economics.
The UN has consistently flagged the issue of the lack of access to humanitarian aid for besieged populations with both the Syrian government and rebels. The Chinese government enjoys good economic relations with both the Syrian government and prominent opposition group, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Chinese government-owned conglomerate, Sinopec, is also a major investor in Syria’s northeastern and eastern oilfields, areas which are administered by the SDF coalition and which offer an economic opportunity for the opposition. As such, Beijing enjoys the rare distinction of being trusted by both the opposition and the Assad government. Using its political and financial clout, China is better placed than other nation or organisation to negotiate access to humanitarian aid convoys through Syria’s besieged areas.
Xi’s speech in Geneva also expressed his country’s gratefulness toward the international community for contributing to China’s growth and expressed Beijing’s willingness for responding to other people’s calls for assistance. Amid all the noise from air-bombings and firefights, as well as the squabbling at the UN, the cry of help from Syrian people is loud enough to press China into responding.