Shadow cast on renewed hopes for peace in Syria

Updated: 2013-05-30 11:48

By Chen Weihua (China Daily)

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Shadow cast on renewed hopes for peace in Syria

With tensions easing on the Korean Peninsula, the expanding conflict in Syria has become the hottest spot in the world today. The two years of fighting there has killed some 80,000 people and left more than a million homeless.

However, there was renewed hope on the horizon when earlier this month Russia and the United States proposed another peace conference on Syria in Geneva, Switzerland, in mid June.

Both the Syrian government and the opposition have so far agreed "in principle" to attend the meeting, even though divided rebel forces have not yet reached agreement on a unified stance.

China has said it is willing to actively participate in the second Geneva conference. The first one, in June of last year and presided over by former United Nations-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, failed to halt hostilities in the crisis. China and Russia believed it was unfair for the West to demand tight restrictions on the Syrian government forces while asking little of the rebel Free Syrian Army.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on Monday that China welcomes the proposal by Russia and the US to hold a second international conference.

He said China is ready to work with all related parties to push for a just, peaceful and proper resolution to the conflict in Syria as soon as possible.

The renewed hope, however, took a hit on Monday when Britain and France successfully blocked the extension of a European Union arms embargo on Syrian rebels, despite strong opposition from some its 27 members and many of their own citizens. France and Britain said they had no plans to arm the rebels immediately, at least not before the Geneva conference.

Russia, which had previously agreed to the Western request to halt honoring a previous weapons deal with the Syrian government, condemned the EU move. "You cannot declare the wish to stop the bloodshed on one hand and continue to pump armaments into Syria on the other hand," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Tuesday in Moscow.

A day earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the prospects of holding the Geneva talks next month as "a tall order" for a successful resolution in Syria. He also accused some Western partners of trying to undermine the conference.

In response to the EU decision, Russia said it now intends to go ahead with arms shipments to Damascus according to the terms of a deal inked long before the Syrian conflict began.

China also opposed the EU's decision, foreign ministry spokesman Hong said on Tuesday, adding that actions taken by the international community should be conducive to a ceasefire, an end to violence and a political solution to the Syrian conflict, as well as promote peace and stability throughout the Middle East.

Messages from the US are confusing.

While Secretary of State John Kerry has been hard at work with his Russian counterpart Larvov trying to make progress on the Geneva talks, White House spokesman Jay Carney and State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrel both expressed support of the EU's decision to let the arms embargo lapse and open the gates for EU members to supply weapons to Syrian rebels.

Carney said the US opposes Russian shipments of arms, which include sophisticated S-300 air defense systems, to the Syrian government forces.

The US government, with painful experience from a decade of Iraq war, has so far been reluctant to get deeply involved in the conflict, providing only non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition army. Still, Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, visited rebels in Syria over the weekend and promised to pressure the Obama administration to arm the retreating opposition forces.

Israel, which already dragged itself into the conflict earlier this month by bombing a Syrian military research facility that it suspected of being weapons shipments to Hezbollah, said it will act if Russia goes ahead with the delivery of anti-aircraft missiles to Syria.

China has taken heat in the West for vetoing UN resolutions on Syria. However, analysts said China has not supported the crackdown on rebels by the Assad government. Instead, it has been using its influence to persuade President Assad to make concessions.

China is deeply worried that the West might try to use a UN resolution to force a regime change in Syria, just as they did in Libya, after China and Russia abstained in the UN vote.

Li Baodong, China's permanent representative to the UN, said two weeks ago that a political solution was the only right way out of the Syrian problem. Military action would not address the crisis and would only lead to more conflict and bloodshed, he added.

"The future destiny of Syria should be decided by the Syrian people themselves," Li said.

"We must respect the right of each country in the world to independently choose its path of development and oppose interference in the internal affairs of other countries," Chinese President Xi Jinping said during his visit to Russia in March.

It seems that Xi and Obama will have to reach a better understanding of their approaches to the Syria crisis when they meet in Sunnylands desert retreat in California, June 7-8, less than two weeks before the Geneva conference.

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(China Daily USA 05/30/2013 page2)