Will Piekos is a Research Associate for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry recently announced a “new” four-point peace initiative to solve the crisis in Syria. During a visit to Beijing by U.N. and Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi in October, China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi stated that “political dialogue is the only correct way to tackle this issue,” and he added that he hoped the mediation discussions would promote “mutual understanding” and “the appropriate handling of the Syrian issue.”
The U.S. News & World Report summarized the four points of China’s proposal as follows:
- The Syrian government and rebel fighters should make every effort to maintain a ceasefire and work with Brahimi’s mediation efforts;
- Both sides should appoint interlocutors who can negotiate a political transition and maintain governmental stability;
- The international community should increase support for Brahimi’s efforts and other mediation initiatives, such as ‘relevant Security Council resolutions’;
- The international community should increase humanitarian assistance to conflict regions in Syria.
The new plan seems to reflect China’s acceptance of the deteriorating situation in Syria and of the possibility of Assad’s downfall. By calling for a political transition, the new plan jettisons the traditional Chinese foreign policy terminology in favor of language more in line with current international opinion. It is a noticeable departure from China’s six-point peace plan released in March, which demanded the international community “respect the independence, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Syria” and expressed its disapproval of Western attempts at regime change.
Despite these apparent changes in strategy, however, the plan simply reiterates old points and fails to provide a comprehensive path to peace. China continues to leave off the table the possibility of sanctions or other punitive measures as a way to convince the regime to stop the violence. Without them, the Syrian government has no reason to end the bloodshed: it has the upper hand both militarily and politically, and it has more sophisticated equipment and control of government institutions.
So what can China do to signal it is serious about a political settlement in Syria? Given Beijing’s reluctance to impose sanctions, a small but significant action would be to recognize the recently formed National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as representative of the opposition movement. Given that the Assad regime seemingly no longer maintains a “monopoly on the legitimate use of force,” an integral part of Max Weber’s definition of sovereignty, it would not be a stretch for Beijing to admit that the Assad government does not control a sovereign state. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has already conceded as much by calling for “empowered interlocutors” from relevant parties and a “transitional governing body of broad representation.”
By simply acknowledging the Coalition’s existence, China—a non-Western voice that has foiled previous U.N. action against Assad—can help give the opposition the standing it needs to negotiate a ceasefire or a political transition. The strategy has a chance to hasten a settlement and end the bloodshed without armed intervention, one of China’s stated goals throughout the conflict. Most importantly, Beijing will not be just seen as taking a leading role in finding a solution to the 20-month civil war; it might actually be able to do so.