China steps up ‘military cooperation’ with Assad as top admiral visits Damascus

Telegraph.co.uk — August 18, 2016

China is to step up personnel training and humanitarian assistance to President Bashar al Assad’s Syrian government, state media reported on Thursday, in a signal of growing concern in Beijing about the course of Syria’s civil war.

Rear Admiral Guan Youfei, who heads China‘s office for international military cooperation, met Lt. General Fahd Jassem al-Frejj, the Syrian defence minister, in Damascus earlier this week, the Xinhua news agency said.

The Chinese military is “willing to strengthen cooperation with its Syrian counterparts,” the agency quoted the defence ministry as saying.

“They reached consensus on improving personnel training, and the Chinese military offering humanitarian aid to Syria,” the Xinhua report said of the Damascus meeting.

Xinhua said Adm. Guan also met Lt. General Sergei Chvarkov, the Russian general in charge of the reconciliation centre Russia set up earlier this year to monitor a short-lived ceasefire between the government and rebel groups.

The Russian defence ministry was not immediately available for comment. Russia entered the war in Syria on Assad’s side in September 2015.

The Global Times, a paper published by the ruling Communist Party, said advisors are already on the ground in Syria to train regime forces in the use of Chinese-bought weapons including sniper rifles, rocket launchers, and machine guns.

China has been selling weapons to Syria for decades and has joined Russia in blocking resolutions critical of the regime at the United Nations Security Council.

It has avoided further entanglement, however, and is currently the only permanent member of the Security Council not involved in military operations in Syria.

“The dispatch of senior Chinese military personnel suggests a deeper involvement and a more strategic angle,” to the Syrian crisis said Michal Meidan, an associate fellow at Chatham House and Asia analyst at Energy Aspects.

China sources about half its oil and gas from the Middle East, mostly from Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, which back opposing sides in the multi-sided conflict. Beijing is unlikely to risk alienating any of those powers by becoming militarily involved in the conflict.

The visit may be intended as a diplomatic poke in the eye for the United States amid mounting tensions over Chinese territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, Ms Meidan said.

Chinese involvement in the Syrian war would further complicate a multi-sided conflict that has drawn in most of the world’s major powers.

Russia began flying bombing missions out of Iran this week, in a move likely to complicate plans to fly joint missions with the United States against Islamic State and other terror groups.

The tangle of loyalties was further confused on Thursday when Syrian regime jets bombed Kurdish fighters who are also fighting the Islamic State terrorist group.

The strikes in the divided city of Hasakeh were the first such attacks against a Kurdish-held area of Syria. They come after clashes broke out between Kurdish and pro-government militia in the city on Wednesday.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy on Syria, suspended a humanitarian task force into the country’s besieged areas on Thursday, citing continued violence and demanding a two-day ceasefire to bring supplies to civilians in conflict zones such as Aleppo.

Russia’s ministry of defence said it would consider a 48-hour “humanitarian pause” around Aleppo next week, but did not set specific dates for the ceasefire.

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