China steps up diplomacy in Syria crisis
Visit by envoy of Assad in capital may be followed by opposition members as part of push to resolve crisis; meanwhile rebels say they downed a warplane
China said yesterday that it would host an envoy of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and consider another visit by members of the opposition, as Beijing steps up its diplomacy to help resolve the crisis gripping the Middle Eastern country.
The West and many in the Arab world have scolded China, along with its ally Russia, for vetoing United Nations Security Council resolutions designed to exert pressure on Assad. China has said it is simply trying to prevent more violence.
Opposition sources say at least 18,000 people have been killed since rebels began fighting to oust Assad in March last year.
Beijing, to deflect criticism and show it is trying to develop a political solution, has sent its own envoys to Syria and has already been visited by both Syrian government and opposition delegations.
In its latest effort, China's foreign ministry said Assad's envoy, Bouthaina Shaaban, would begin a visit to China today and meet Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi .
The ministry said that China was also considering inviting members of the Syrian opposition.
"To promote the political solution to the Syria problem, China has always actively balanced its work between the Syrian government and the opposition," ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in a brief statement on the ministry's website.
Qin reiterated China's call for the "practical implementation" of Kofi Annan's peace plan, which is now essentially dead, and for "an immediate ceasefire and for the violence to stop; for the effective protection of civilians and to defuse the crisis through political dialogue."
"Receiving Shaaban in China is part of the above-mentioned work by the Chinese side," Qin said. "Meanwhile, China is also considering inviting Syrian opposition groups in the near term to China."
Shi Yinhong , a professor of international relations at Renmin University, said China was keen to show it was not taking sides in the Syrian conflict. "Russia has never publicly invited the opposition in Syria. They've invited the government. But China, with some prominence, has invited both sides. This is the difference between China and Russia," Shi said.
"The Syrian government is more vulnerable than before. The opposition groups have gained newfound support from the West, but they're also fragile. China has a pressing need to talk to the two sides. The situation now is nearing an end."
China has repeatedly expressed its opposition to outside intervention in troubled countries and to any kind of "regime change" or political solution, which is not broadly supported by the Syrian people.
Yesterday Syrian rebels claimed they had downed a military warplane in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, after state media said a jet had crashed after technical problems. "Yes, we can confirm that a MiG 21 has been downed," said the Free Syrian Army spokesman Kassem Saadeddine. "It was hit with 14.5 calibre anti-aircraft machinegun." Syria's state media said earlier that a warplane suffered a malfunction.
If confirmed, it would be the first time the rebels downed a Syrian jet.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse