Although the visit to Syria by Admiral Guan Youfei (head of the new Chinese Office for International Military Cooperation) was made in the context of a meeting with all of the countries in the region, it has caused some anxiety in the West. For the moment, according to the signed agreement, the Chinese Army has simply agreed to train, in China, Syrian soldiers from the Medical Services. However, everyone understands that this agreement hides something else, since for the last four years, half of Syria’s military doctors have been trained in China. Although we do not know what has really been decided, the existence of the agreement marks a change of strategy.
Indeed, over the last five years, the Peoples’ Republic of China has refused to engage in any form of cooperation which could be interpreted by Washington as military aid. Thus, it has not only refused to deliver weapons, but also civil materials which are indispensable for this war, such as tunnel detectors.
Independent of the very important economic assistance offered by Beijing, everyone will remember that Russia had concluded an identical agreement with Syria at the beginning of 2012, prefiguring its military assistance three and a half years later. So is China also preparing to deploy?
It is probable that the answer will depend on the speed of US deployment in the China Sea and the provocations by Washington’s allies in the region.
China’s interest in Syria dates from Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The Silk Road crossed Central Asia, passing through Palmyra and Damascus before turning towards Tyre and Antioch. There are very few traces left of this ancient commercial cooperation except for the Pagoda still visible in the mosaics of the Umayyad Mosque, or the Great Mosque of Damascus. President Xi made the restoration of this line of communication (and the creation of a second road through Siberia and Europe) the main objective of his mandate.
Beijing’s other main interest is the struggle of the Islamic Party of Turkestan, which joined al-Qaïda, then Daesh. Today there is a Uyghur neighbourhood in Ar-Raqqah, and Daesh publishes a newspaper especially for its members.
The members of this group are connected to the Naqshbandi Order, a Sufi congregation of which the ex-Grand Mufti of Syria, Ahmad Kuftaru, was the leader. Certain lodges of this order connected with the Muslim Brotherhood in 1961, under the influence of the Anglo-Saxon secret services, CIA and MI6. They participated in the creation of the Muslim World League by Saudi Arabia, in 1962. In Iraq, they organised around Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, and supported the attempted coup d’état by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in 1982. In 2014, they sent 80,000 combatants to swell the ranks of Daesh. In Turkey, the Naqchbandis created Millî Görüş of which Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was one of the heads. It was this group who, in the 1990’s, organised Islamist movements in the Russian Caucasus and the Xinjiang region of China.
Even more than the Russians, the Chinese need intelligence about this network, and how it is controlled by Washington and London. In 2001, they believed – wrongly – that the Anglo-Saxons had changed after the attacks of 11 September, and that they would collaborate with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation to fight terrorism. They know today that Syria is an authentic friend in peace.