DAMASCUS, Syria — As evidence emerges of more massacres by Syrian forces, one of two key veto-wielding nations protecting the regime from international action looks set to soften its stance: China.
Having vetoed only six UN Security Council resolutions in its history — the majority of them related to Taiwan, a nation China sees as a breakaway part of its sovereign territory — diplomats and observers say Beijing is unlikely to use its veto for a third time to protect the Syrian government.
“After the EU and US embargo on Iranian oil, China began to think twice about its relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council, the biggest oil exporter to oil-thirsty China,” said a Syrian political analyst based in Damascus who requested anonymity in order to speak freely.
“Saudi Arabia, which leads the GCC, has taken a strong anti-Assad position and China has big interests and investments in the GCC. China has no big investments in Syria. The Chinese felt they made a big mistake by following Russia.”
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Both Russia and China have twice vetoed Security Council resolutions condemning the Syrian regime’s violence against its own people and calling on President Bashar al-Assad to step down, arguing that the international community should not interfere in the internal affairs of independent states.
Diplomats are now negotiating a third Security Council resolution, due to be put to vote this week. The revised resolution will likely not include a call for Assad to step down and would condemn violence by both the government and the armed opposition as well.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said last week that both China and Russia were paying “a diplomatic price,” particularly in the eyes of Arab nations, for their support of Assad.
On March 7, a Chinese envoy met with Syrian Foreign Minister Waleed al-Moallem in Damascus to present a six-point plan for finding a political solution to the crisis in Syria.
Over the following weekend up to 47 people were killed in Homs, including children, in areas of the city formerly controlled by rebels but recently taken over by regime forces. State-run media acknowledged the latest deaths but blamed “armed terrorist gangs.”
Photos distributed by activists showed the bodies of five children, some of whom appear to have had their throats slit or had suffered stab wounds. In the days immediately following the withdrawal of the Free Syrian Army from Homs’ Baba Amr neighborhood, witnesses said that Assad’s militias, known as the Shabiha, killed dozens of civilians.
In 2004, Assad became the first Syrian leader to visit China. Within three years, Syrian-Chinese trade had soared to some $1.5 billion, making China Damascus’ largest trading partner, though almost exclusively through Chinese goods imported to Syria.
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China has two oil companies with small concessions in Syria that employ a few hundred Chinese workers and technical engineers. They were recalled last week, however, on the day China’s envoy to Syria, Li Huaxin, arrived in Damascus.
After abstaining on the vote that authorized international action on Libya, China was forced into an 11th-hour rescue of nearly 36,000 Chinese nationals from Libya when NATO began its bombing campaign.
Before travelling on to a meeting with GCC head Abdullatif al-Zayani in the Saudi capital on Sunday, Li Huaxin also met with a delegation from the Syrian Coordination Commission for Democratic Change, led by veteran opposition figure Hassan Abdul Azim.
“He urged us to begin unconditional dialogue with the government but we told him the regime should prepare to negotiate on a transition period,” said a member of Azim’s group.
“We want to talk about how to move Syria from dictatorship to democracy. We cannot sit and talk with officials who are engaged in bloodshed and killing. The Chinese began to change their minds and listen to us. China will not stand with the Assad regime like before.”
This story was reported by a GlobalPost journalist in Damascus and written by Hugh Macleod in Beirut.