As US President Barack Obama welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping to the White House on Friday, Sept. 25, and spoke of the friendship between the two countries, the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning-CV-16 docked at the Syrian port of Tartus, accompanied by a guided missile cruiser. This is revealed exclusively by DEBKAfile.
Beijing is not finding it hard to dance at two weddings, wooing the US for better relations, while at the same time backing Russia in its military intervention in Syria. Coupled with the warm smiles and handshakes exchanged at the lavish reception on the White House lawn, Beijing was clearly bent on showing muscle – not just in the South China Sea, but by allying itself with the Russian-Iranian political and military buildup in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his regime.
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.
This was grasped at length by US Secretary of State John Kerry. On Sept. 25, he sent Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who also led the US negotiating team for the nuclear talks with Iran, to announce that the Obama administration is ready for dialogue with Iran about the situation in Syria, and this topic would be raised when Kerry’s met Iranian Foreign Minister Muhammad Jawad Zarif in New York on Sept. 26.
But if the top US diplomat hoped to bypass the Russian initiative in Syria by going straight to Tehran, he was too late. Iran is already moving forward fast to augment its military presence in the war-torn country, buttressed by the ground, air and sea support of two world powers, Russia and China.
This turn of evens has a highly detrimental effect on Israel’s strategic and military position. It also strengthens Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in his determination to turn the nuclear deal concluded in July into a tool for isolating the US politically, militarily and economically in the Middle East, rather than a milestone on the road to a breakthrough in ties with Iran, as the Obama administration had hoped.
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.
This explains the urgency of establishing a Russian–Syria-Iranian “military coordination cell” in Baghdad in the last couple of days. This mechanism, plus the Russian officers sighted in Baghdad, indicates that the Russian military presence is not limited to Syria but is beginning to spill over into Iraq as well.
The coordination cell – or war room – was presented as necessary to begin working with Iranian-backed Shiite militias fighting the Islamic State in both places. But more immediately, it is urgently needed to control the heavy traffic of Russian, Iranian and Chinese military flights transiting Iraqi air space.
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’s counterterrorism sources point out that just as Russian marines will be instructed to single out rebel militias with recruits from Chechnya and the Caucasus, the Chinese marines will seek out and destroy Uighur fighters from the northern predominantly Muslim Chinese province of Xinjiang.
In the same way that Putin has no wish to see the Chechen fighters back in Russia, so too Chinese President Xi wants to prevent the Uighurs from returning home from the Syrian battlefields.