Is Russia Actually Upset China Is Preparing to Train Syria's Military?

Reading the tea leaves retired Indian diplomat and analyst thinks so

On Friday, Moscow made a fascinating diplomatic move. It extended an invitation to Tokyo to join Russia’s humanitarian mission in Syria’s Aleppo.  There can’t be a more noble initiative. The survivors in the Syrian inferno need urgent interim relief. (TASS)

But then, this is a geopolitical war and warriors do not have bleeding hearts. Something is curious about Moscow’s initiative. One, it is a ‘mil-to-mil’ offer to Tokyo’s Defence Ministry. (Yet, the two countries don’t even have a peace treaty after World War II.) Two, Tokyo is surprised and can’t figure out a response. Three, why faraway Japan – why not nearby Germany or Sweden?

This last point, perhaps, holds the clue. Moscow made its offer to Japan some ten days after a senior Chinese military official Guan Youfei had visited Damascus with the offer of humanitarian assistance – and military cooperation. Moscow made its displeasure known that Beijing didn’t proceed through ‘proper channel’. The establishment paper RBTH at once pounced on China’s motivations. Some excerpts:

  • Beijing must have gambled on netting lucrative construction contracts in Syria and providing building materials as well as collateral services… It sure looks like China is not going to forfeit the “dividend of peace” once Syria is stabilized.

  • However, China’s more assertive behavior in world affairs and readiness to enter hot spots cannot be attributed solely to the need to tap foreign markets, shower them with consumer goods and/or extract and import their mineral resources. It’s more than that. It is about what Xi Jinping termed as the new diplomacy of a super power “with a Chinese accent”… If things do develop along these lines, China may soon try on the role of a global security provider. The Middle East might be an acceptable testing ground. Is Beijing mature enough to carry this burden? Probably, yes. In any case, the Chinese no longer have an inferiority complex. They claim to “have grown up.” (RBTH)

These are unsavoury remarks to make about a country with which President Vladimir Putin professed “friendship forever” only recently. But then, Russians are very possessive about client states. (Ask any erstwhile Warsaw Pact country.) What has rattled Moscow could be that China has reportedly sounded Damascus about the deployment of Chinese jets to carry out air strikes against the extremist groups linked to Uighur fighters. Moscow’s nervousness is understandable, since Damascus’s dependence on Russian air power may diminish if Chinese Air Force appears in the Syrian skies as part of a deal directly between Syria and China by passing Russia. (FARS)

Now, our new MOS for External Affairs MJ Akbar, who is a novice in international diplomacy, may have committed the same mistake as Admiral Guan by daring to visit Damascus last week without informing Moscow.

The quasi-establishment Russian paper Pravda has come down heavily alleging that China and India aim to erode Russia’s pre-eminent status in Syria. Worse still, it suspects that India is acting as the US’ proxy, given New Delhi’s traditional friendship with the Assad family. Got it?

Pravda feels outraged that Russia is doing “all the dirty and hard work” in the Syrian war, and now that the war is about to end, China and India have raised their heads above the parapet. (Read it here, China and India to oust Russia from Syria?)

Why are Russians so paranoid? An answer isn’t hard to find. Syria indeed has a lot of hydrocarbon reserves and is also a potential route for regional pipelines. Russia has a finger in every pie wherever there is oil and gas, since its economy survives on energy exports.

Second, Moscow spent a lot of money in this war and must somehow recoup it through exports during Syria’s reconstruction. But it can hardly compete with Chinese or Indian companies on a level playing field. Russian companies must secure the lucrative business through governmental negotiation.

Third, Moscow seeks a Syrian settlement that does not demand vacation of its military bases. Moscow needs a trade-off with Washington – between two ‘superpowers’ as in the halcyon days – so that Russian interests in other areas such as Ukraine, Black Sea, Crimea, western sanctions and so on are also taken care of.

Of course, too many cooks – China and India on top of existing prima donnas (Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Qatar, etc.) – may spoil the broth, as the saying goes.

In fact, some heartburn is already apparent that Turkey’s Recep Erdogan has stolen a march on Putin on the Syrian chessboard. The RBHT commented wryly that Kremlin is displeased that Turkey marched into Syria without “coordinating” with Moscow. (See the RBHT commentary Turkey has gone further than promised, says Moscow.)

Now, Erdogan could probably sense that Moscow feels upset. He put a phone call through to Putin on Friday. But Putin too is unscrutable, and it seems unlikely he’ll watch a football match Tuesday with Erdogan in the gorgeous Turkish Riviera, Antalya, as speculated earlier.

Indeed, walk into the bear’s den only if you believe in an afterlife. That’s something Guan and Akbar need to know – and, perhaps, Erdogan, too.

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