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Could China’s Syria ceasefire plan be the path to peace?

Could China’s Syria ceasefire plan be the path to peace?

Today’s big Syria headline from Beijing: China unveils new 4-point peace initiative to end country’s civil war.

The Chinese plan is, in a nutshell, a few bits and pieces borrowed from pre-existing Arab League and U.N. peace initiatives — i.e, a phased region-by-region ceasefire, a political transition, and stepped up humanitarian relief. There’s not a lot new here. And the irony is that these initiatives have, in the past, failed to gain momentum, in part, because China joined Russia in vetoing three resolutions promoting similar plans.

"A political settlement is the only viable solution in Syria," Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said, according to Xinhua, which outlined Beijing’s big idea:  

First, relevant parties in Syria should make every effort to stop fighting and violence, and cooperate actively with the mediation efforts of Brahimi. Relevant parties should implement effective steps toward a cease-fire, for example region by region or phase by phase, expand the areas of cease-fire, realize disengagement, and eventually bring an end to all armed conflict and violence.

Second, relevant parties in Syria should appoint empowered interlocutors as soon as possible so that, assisted by Brahimi and the international community, they can formulate through consultations a roadmap of political transition, establish a transitional governing body of broad representation, and implement political transition so as to end the Syrian crisis at an early date. To ensure a safe, stable and calm transition, the continuity and effectiveness of Syria’s governmental institutions must be maintained.

Third, the international community should work with greater urgency and responsibility to fully cooperate with and support Brahimi’s mediation efforts and make real progress in implementing the communique of the Geneva foreign ministers’ meeting of the Action Group for Syria, Mr. Annan’s six-point plan and relevant Security Council resolutions. The positive efforts of the Arab League and countries in the region in search of a political settlement should be valued.

Fourth, relevant parties should take concrete steps to ease the humanitarian crisis in Syria. The international community should increase humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people and ensure proper resettlement of refugees beyond the Syrian border and timely aid for those in need within Syria. The Syrian government and various parties should render full cooperation to the work of the United Nations and relevant neutral institutions to provide humanitarian assistance in all conflict-affected regions and ensure the safety of their personnel. At the same time, humanitarian issues should not be politicized and humanitarian assistance should not be militarized.

So, what are we to make of China’s peace initiative?

Does it mark a turning point in its commitment to see the 18-month civil war brought to an end? Or an admission, perhaps, that Beijing is growing weary of its Syrian ally’s refusal to halt a ruthlessly disproportionate response to its armed opponents, at the cost of thousands of civilian lives?

Or is this what a government does when a prominent international envoy — in this case U.N.-Arab League Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, shows up at your door to press you to knuckle down on a recalcitrant friend? So is this just what Beijing scrapped together to appear that it’s seriously invested in making peace?

Through most of the Syrian conflict, China has largely sought to avoid drawing much attention to itself, offering few ideas to resolve the crisis in closed-door Security Council consultations, while sticking to stock government talking points in public statements about the need to resolve the crisis peacefully while respecting Syria’s sovereignty.

It’s worth noting that while China is a major power, it’s a bit player on Syria, taking its cue from Russia, which has been reluctant to ratchet up pressure on Bashar al-Assad to yield power to Syria’s opposition forces. But Beijing has occasionally raised its profile — it previously sent a high-level delegation to Middle East capitols to explain and defend its decision to veto Arab-backed U.N. Security Council resolutions on Syria – to avoid a political backlash against Chinese interests in the region.

It’s probably useful that Beijing be seen backing Brahimi’s mediation effort. And there is a curiously specific, though vague, call for a phased ceasefire in the proposal. But a close look at China’s plan reveals that Beijing is largely restating positions previously agreed to by the international community — including Kofi Annan’s six-point plan and the Geneva Communiqué — backed by the U.N.’s five big powers.

The Chinese plan also sidesteps controversial matters, like the fate of Assad at the end of a political transition. And there was little in China’s statement that echoed Brahimi’s call in Moscow earlier this week for "a real transition, not cosmetic reforms" in Syria. One Security Council diplomat dismissed the Chinese initiative as containing the same fatal flaw as its long-standing stance on Syria — it’s unwilling to apply pressure on Damascus to halt the killing.

Meanwhile, the Syrians haven’t been able to get through Eid al-Adha, the Muslim religious holiday, without killing one another. "The government made the announcement that they were going to stop firing during the Eid period," Brahimi said in Moscow on Monday. Quite a few of the opposition groups did the same. Now each side is accusing the other side of having broken this ceasefire. The result is that there was no pause and the people of Syria haven’t spent quiet days during the Eid."

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