Wednesday May 27, 2020


August 30, 2013

For over two years, the international community has been unable to agree on a response to the devastating civil war in Syria. In the wake of a chemical weapons attack just outside Damascus, the dispute has become even more pressing. The August 21 attack killed at least 350 people, with the U.S. government estimating over 1,000 casualties. Almost immediately, Western countries such as the U.S., the UK, and France began publicly discussing the possibility of a military strike against Syria. Meanwhile, Russia and China, who have blocked numerous UN Security Council resolutions involving Syria, remain strongly opposed to any intervention in the conflict.

Currently, both Russia and China are calling for other countries to wait for the results of a UN investigation into the August 21 attack. China and Russia maintain that there is no credible evidence that Bashar al-Assad’s government was responsible for the attack. However, U.S. officials expect the UN investigation to be inconclusive, since the team was delayed from reaching the site for several days. Secretary of State John Kerry accused the Syrian regime of trying to “stall and stymie” the UN investigation. Meanwhile, the U.S. has argued that its intelligence agencies have evidence strongly suggesting that Assad’s government is indeed responsible.

The U.S. seems prepared to act on that assumption. In an interview with PBS on August 28, President Obama said that his administration had “concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these [chemical weapons attacks] out.” Further, Obama called preventing the further use of chemical weapons a “core self-interest” of America’s. Kerry, in remarks at the State Department on August 26, called the attack “a moral obscenity” that required a strong response. U.S. government officials have stressed that a military strike against Syria would be a limited strike meant to deter the further use of chemical weapons rather than a full-scale attempt to oust Assad. Still, there are major concerns over the implications of military action in an already unstable and chaotic region.

China, which has consistently sided with Russia to block UN action against Assad’s government, insists that any response to the chemical attack must wait until the UN investigation has finished. Both Russia and China drew explicit parallels between a hypothetical attack on Syria and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which was based on faulty intelligence. China’s media outlets even accused the U.S. of using chemical weapons as a “pretext” for military action against Syria. China also warned that, as in the Iraq war, any action against Syria would create a quagmire-like situation, with numerous unintended consequences for the region.

The debate has mostly focused on the specifics of the Syria situation. There are lingering questions over who was responsible for the August 21 attack, and there are also concerns that a strike against the Assad government would benefit extremist and terrorist groups within the Syrian opposition. However, arguments over these issues mask a deeper divide: the U.S. believes in humanitarian intervention, while China does not.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, U.S. rhetoric supporting a military strike combined two major themes: the need to uphold the “international norm” opposing the use of chemical weapons and the need to intervene in a growing humanitarian disaster. In his remarks, Kerry said that the attack “defies any code of morality,” a phrase neatly conflating the two ideas. It’s worth noting that two newly promoted members of the Obama administration (new National Security Advisor Susan Rice and new UN Ambassador Samantha Power) are well-known advocates for humanitarian intervention. Even before the August 21 attack, there were calls for the U.S. to intervene in the Syrian civil war, which has killed over 100,000 people and displaced at least two million more.

China, however, maintains a strict policy of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs. China’s reasons for advocating non-interference are complex. For one thing, many defense experts (including those in China) argue that China still lacks the capability to intervene militarily in far-away locations such as the Middle East. More importantly, China holds fast to its principle of non-interference because it has felt the impact of foreign “interference” in its own affairs. China consistently champions a hands-off approach, and would like to see Western countries adopt this attitude towards China’s own internal affairs.

U.S. policymakers often argue that the U.S. must play a role in preventing humanitarian disaster, and believe the U.S.’s international image suffers when it fails to do so. By contrast, China has no wish to take responsibility for the internal affairs of any other country. Having never emphasized human rights, China’s international image is not tied to its response towards other countries’ disasters. In fact, an article in the state-run People’s Daily argued that China could actually improve its international standing if it took the lead in preventing a “Western attack on Syria”. China is against the use of chemical weapons, but is not willing to endorse the use of military force as a deterrent.

In the U.S., the political calculus is quite different. Obama has already been taken to task for not intervening in other countries’ domestic crises. During the 2012 presidential election, Obama was attacked by the Republican Party for “leading from behind” in the campaign to remove Gaddafi from Libya. Obama was also widely criticized for proclaiming the use of chemical weapons a “red line” in the Syrian conflict, then taking only limited action after a number of small scale chemical weapons attacks. Now it may be politically difficult for Obama to refrain from a military strike, even though the U.S. will have to act without at least one major ally. The UK’s parliament, despite the efforts of Prime Minister David Cameron, voted on Thursday to deny permission for military action.

China and the U.S. take opposite sides on the Syria issue, just as they do on most issues involving humanitarian intervention. The two countries rarely agree even on the use of sanctions or other international pressure mechanisms to “punish” other countries. Clearly, the U.S. and China have different conceptions of what it means to be both a great power and a responsible actor in the global community.

Obama called preventing the use of chemical weapons a “core self-interest”, a phrase quite similar to China’s classification of Taiwan, Tibet, and other sovereignty issues as “core interests”. By doing this, Obama may have intended to convey to China how seriously the U.S. takes its role as an international rule-keeper. China, meanwhile, has grown tired of supposed “international norms” being enforced unilaterally by the U.S. Such disagreements will only continue to grow in importance as China seeks to increase its role in the international order. Syria will not be the last issue to deadlock the UN Security Council, and so it provides a critical diplomatic test to the global governance regime.


For more information on the Syria crisis, please see the following news sources:

Aljazeera“UN Security Council members discuss Syria”

BBC “Syria crisis: Russia and China step up warning over strike”

China Daily“China calls for restraint on Syria”

CNBC“China has much at risk but no reach in Middle East”

CNN “Syria allies: Why Russia, Iran and China are standing by the regime”

New York Times“Culprit in Syrian Chemical Attack Is Unclear, China Insists”

New York Times“Obama Is Willing to Go It Alone in Syria, Aides Say”

People’s Daily“Strikes on Syria will shatter Obama’s legacy”

People’s Daily“Countries opposed to Syria strike must speak out”

Voice of America“China Warns Against Syria Intervention”

Washington Post“China urges U.S. restraint in Syria over chemical weapons”

Washington Post“U.S. military officers have deep doubts about impact, wisdom of a U.S. strike on Syria”

Xinhua“UN permanent member states fail to agree on Syria”


For Chinese-language news on the Syria crisis, please see the following news sources:中华网)“美国攻打叙利亚意欲何为”

People’s Daily (人民网) “美攻叙或先射导弹再战机轰炸 目前导弹不超200枚”

Phoenix (凤凰网)“美国‘最早周四’将袭攻叙利亚 黄金拍手感恩不尽”

Voice of America (美国之音)“时事大家谈:简在弦上如何发? 美国酝酿大吉叙利亚”

Xinhua (新华)“对叙动武,一触即发”

Xinhua (新华)“美国对叙利亚问题陷入两难”

Xinhua (新华) “叙利亚紧张局势升级” (A topic page devoted to coverage of the situation in Syria)



Compiled and edited by Shannon Tiezzi.