Putin In Syria: Is Russia Forming a “Coalition” Which Could Include China?

September 28, 2015
Vladimir Putin, centre, and Xi Jinping, third left, watch the Victory Day parade in Moscow on May 9, 2015, commemorating the end of World War II | Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

There continue to be reports that Chinese warships will join Russia’s mission in Syria. This follows claims that Russia is building a “coalition” which is cooperating with Syria, Iran, and Iraq.

The previous post in our Putin in Syria column can be found here.

Russian Media Adds Fuel To Fire That Chinese Ships Will Join Russian “Coalition” In Syria

Last week we reported that two news outlets — the pro-Assad Al-Masdar Al-Arabi and the pro-Kremlin Pravda — both reported that Chinese warships were joining a coalition of Russian forces off the coast of Syria.

Neither of those sources is particularly reliable. Pravda did, however, cite Russian Senator Igor Morozov in its claim.

Today, the Russian state-operated propaganda network RT has amplified these claims:

China's military advisers 'heading to Syria to help fight ISIS' – report

China will be helping out the Syrian government in the fight against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIL/ISIS) by sending "military advisers," media reports have claimed. "The Chinese will be arriving in the coming weeks," a Syrian army official told the Lebanon-based news website Al-Masdar Al-'Arabi.

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Sep 28, 2015 18:30 (GMT)

RT cites the pro-Assad website and DEBKAfile, a website which covers the Israeli intelligence and security apparatus. DEBKAfile, in turn, cites an unnamed military source:

DEBKAfile’s military sources report that the Chinese aircraft carrier passed through the Suez Canal on Sept. 22, one day after the summit in Moscow between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

When they talked, Putin made no mention of the Chinese warship entering the eastern Mediterranean or its destination. Its arrival has upended the entire strategic situation surrounding the Syrian conflict, adding a new global dimension to Moscow and Tehran’s military support for Assad.

Our military sources find evidence that the Chinese forces are digging in for a prolonged stay in Syria. The carrier put into Tartus minus its aircraft contingent. The warplanes and helicopters should be in place on its decks by mid-November – flying in directly from China via Iran or transported by giant Russian transports from China through Iranian and Iraqi airspace.

Our sources report that the Chinese will be sending out to Syria a squadron of J-15 Flying Shark fighters, some for takeoff positions on the carrier’s decks, the rest to be stationed at the Russian airbase near Latakia. The Chinese will also deploy Z-18F anti-submarine helicopters and Z-18J airborne early warning helicopters. In addition, Beijing will consign at least 1,000 marines to fight alongside their counterparts from Russia and Iran against terrorist groups, including ISIS. 

DEBKAfile is hardly a reliable source, and there has been no confirmation from the Chinese military. Still, RT’s publication and these claims published in pro-Kremlin Pravda and pro-Assad Al-Masdar Al-Arabi suggest that the Kremlin is trying to portray Russia’s mission as part of an international coalition against ISIS — even if ISIS is clearly not Russia’s priority in Syria.

 All eyes will be on Russian President Putin in a few minutes as he speaks to the UN General Assembly. We’ll see if he comments on this “coalition” in his address.

James Miller