A few years ago, relatively early on in the war against ISIS, I was smuggled into Northern Syria along a PKK re-supply route. Taking a small inflatable boat across the river which acted as the border between Syria and Iraq, my first stop in the Kurdish held areas of Syria (known as Rojava) was a military outpost called Derik.
Situated on top of a mountain, Derik had not been a military base until the Kurdish YPG militia had captured it months prior. Before that, Derik had been the site of a Chinese oil company installation. Crawling out from the back of a Hilux pickup truck in the dead of night, the first thing I saw was the barracks for Chinese oil workers and a fleet of white pickup trucks that had belonged to the company. Putting my head down in one of the prefabricated barracks rooms (not dissimilar to those utilized by American soldiers during Operation Iraqi Freedom) I awoke early the next morning to discover that the surrounding landscape was littered with oil wells.
Of course, the war had interrupted Chinese oil drilling in Syria. The oil pumps were frozen in place, collecting rust, and looking like ancient monoliths in a post-apocalyptic movie. The largest joint Chinese-Syrian oil endeavor was undertaken by the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation, however, I believe this particular oil facility had been owned by Sinochem, another Chinese oil company that had been helping to develop oil infrastructure in Syria. Rojava, as it turns out, is one of those parts of the world where oil just bubbles up from the ground naturally in some places, causing big black splotches that damage paved roads.
Suffice to say that it was a surreal moment, my first time in Syria, standing on what had been a Chinese oil base. Globalization has been stalled in this part of the world as barbaric hoards from ISIS have obliterated future economic development. Ironically, the base was now occupied by Kurdish socialists, and pictures of their ideological leader Abdullah Ocelon were posted everywhere. Now, the Chinese were one of the ancillary stakeholders in the conflict who were bleeding their chips away, losing oil fields to ISIS in both Syria and Iraq.
From the Middle East, to Africa, to Southeast Asia, the People’s Republic of China has embarked on an ambitious plan to secure what is perhaps their most important national security imperative in the 21st Century: energy security. The drilling, extraction, and transportation of energy resources to China must be secured in order for the government to ensure future growth and prosperity. It is no coincidence that China has been taking over islands in the South China Sea and building military bases on them. This is China’s backyard, and if a foreign power (America) were to cut off China’s sea lanes, the country would essentially be strangulated to death. All of this is one facet of China’s larger 100-year plan.
When it comes to the ISIS plague in the Middle East, China wisely retreated from the conflict and declined to get involved. This is also indicative of China’s national style. They prefer to “fight with a borrowed sword.” Let Russia and Western powers get bogged down in another senseless war in the Middle East while China plays the long game. At this stage, that last thing the Chinese government wants is to reveal their hand through outright military aggression. Such actions could trigger a conventional military conflict with the West, something they are not quite ready for.
And yet, a lot has changed in Syria since I visited the haphazard YPG bases in Rojava a couple years back. America has seemingly backed away from open overtures of regime change, Russia has militarily backed the Assad government, and Iran has also played a proxy role in keeping the Syrian government afloat. The alignment of interests by those nations antagonistic to the United States, such as Iran and Russia, has unsurprisingly appealed to the likes of China as well.
In mid-August, Reuters reported on Chinese military assistance to Syria, quoting from Chinese state run news network Xinhua:
Guan Youfei, director of the Office for International Military Cooperation of China’s Central Military Commission, met Syrian Defence Minister Fahad Jassim al-Freij in Damascus, China’s Xinhua state news agency said.
Guan said China had consistently played a positive role in pushing for a political resolution in Syria.
“China and Syria’s militaries have a traditionally friendly relationship, and China’s military is willing to keep strengthening exchanges and cooperation with Syria’s military,” the news agency paraphrased Guan as saying.
Both also talked about personnel training and “reached a consensus” on the Chinese military providing humanitarian aid, Xinhua added, without elaborating.
Guan also met a Russian general in Damascus, the news agency said, without giving details.
Now that the battlefield in Syria has matured, and great powers like Russia and America have solidified policy decisions, not to mention taking on all the risks, the Chinese are again willing to dip their toes in the water. For the PRC, it is important to get their foot in the door before the ISIS conflict reaches its end game in order to regain access to important oil fields.
Based on the open source reporting on meetings between Syrian, Russian, and Chinese officials, we also have to wonder what personnel and assets China will be deploying to Syria and what other agendas might be at play. Rojava, the site of some of the previously mentioned Chinese oil fields is currently where around 300 American Special Operations soldiers are stationed. From combat outposts, these Americans are conducting their own train, advise, and assist mission in Syria alongside the Kurds.
What the future holds in this region is anything but certain.