During Tuesday's Republican debate, Ben Carson said something utterly baffling about the Syrian civil war:
We also must recognize that it’s a very complex place. You know, the Chinese are there, as well as the Russians, and you have all kinds of factions there.
It's true that the Syrian civil war is complicated, with a dizzying variety of factions on the ground (here's a very simple visual explainer for the perplexed). However, there's no evidence that China is one of them. At all. And no one aside from Carson appears to have heard of a Chinese deployment.
At first, it was tempting to write this off as one of the candidate's (many, many) gaffes. But Carson's campaign, rather than backing off the statement, has doubled down.
One of Carson's top advisers, Armstrong Williams, went on MSNBC Wednesday to defend the China-in-Syria theory. He cited — and I'm not making this up — "our own intelligence," as if a political campaign has a private CIA at its disposal:
From our own intelligence and what Dr. Carson's been told by people who are on the ground who are involved in that region of the world, it has been told to him may times over and over, that the Chinese are there.
It's hard to say where Carson's comments come from, exactly, though there are some possibilities. Russia Today, the Kremlin's English-language propaganda outlet, reported that China is sending "advisers" to help fight ISIS in September, citing an unnamed Syrian army official. DEBKAfile, an obscure right-wing Israeli site, recently ran a piece headlined, "Chinese warplanes to join Russian air strikes in Syria." This claim remains, to date, unsubstantiated.
Two top White House officials even got asked about it at Thursday's White House Press briefing. They included, the Hill reports, a "grinning" retort from Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes:
"I have not seen any evidence of Chinese military involvement in Syria," National Security Adviser Susan Rice told reporters when asked about Carson’s remarks.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, who grinned when ABC News’s Jonathan Karl asked the question, later appeared at the lectern and said China generally does not involve itself in Middle Eastern conflicts.
"It’s worth stepping back and noting China makes it a practice to not get extended into military conflicts in the Middle East," he said. "Their policy over many years and decades has been to not be overextended in military exercises."
Then on Friday, Carson's campaign released a lengthy statement reinterpreting the claim. "Dr. Carson does not believe China is currently fighting or deploying troops in Syria," the statement read. "He has never made that assertion."
Carson's campaign now asserts that he meant, "China is exerting its influence and has a presence in the ongoing Syrian conflict," citing reports of Chinese arms sales to the Syrian government. It is true that China has sold weapons to Syria, but every documented sale cited in Carson's statement predates the beginning of the Syrian war in 2011. It's hard to square this with the idea that China is "exerting its influence" in "the ongoing Syria conflict." Carson's statement seems a lot more like post-hoc damage control than an actually thought-out position on the Syrian civil war.
And to be very clear, there is zero evidence whatsoever that China "has a presence" in Syria. While China opposes any Western action against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, it is just wacky to think that they would intervene there on his behalf.
"China will continue to keep a low profile on the Syria issue, just as it has for the past four years," Shannon Tiezzi writes in the Asia-focused publication the Diplomat. Unlike Russia or Iran, China doesn't really have any real strategic interest in the outcome of the war. Sending a military presence to Syria would run against everything we know about China and how it behaves.