The campaign of Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson is hitting back at criticism over a comment he made during Tuesday night’s debate about China being involved in the conflict in Syria.
Carson’s debate comment came in response to a question about President Barack Obama’s decision to send 50 members of special-operations forces to Syria and to keep 10,000 US troops in Afghanistan past the end of his presidency.
The retired neurosurgeon said that having US special-ops forces in Syria is better than not having them there, and then noted that Syria is a “very complex place.”
“You know, the Chinese are there, as well as the Russians, and you have all kinds of factions there,” Carson said.
The remark spawned criticism from foreign-policy experts and scribes, who cast doubt on Carson’s assertion.
On Thursday night, Carson’s campaign pushed back on that criticism. It sent a memo to Business Insider clarifying why Carson said China has a presence in Syria, where the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has been fighting rebel and jihadist groups to maintain his grip on power since the country’s civil war began in 2011. (You can see the full document at the bottom of the post.)
“China has had longstanding and well-documented security ties to Syria, provided various military weapons and equipment that Syria is using in the current conflict,” the statement said. “Dr. Carson does not believe China is currently fighting in or deploying troops to Syria, and contrary to press reports, he has never made that assertion.”
Armstrong Williams, a top Carson adviser, told Business Insider earlier this week, however, that intelligence sources and military operatives in the Middle East have told Carson that “Chinese military advisers are on the ground in Syria operating with Russia special operations personnel.”
Still, the Carson campaign’s statement suggests that at the debate, Carson was referring to Chinese weapons, rather than troops or advisers.
“In the decades past, China has regularly sold missiles, missile technology and missile components to Syria, despite US objections,” the statement continued. “… China has also sold advanced radar to the Assad regime. Though the sale predates the current Syrian conflict, experienced military analysts believe that China likely continues to provide logistic and training support for these weapons.”
Journalists and analysts have linked China to the Syrian regime before. But the White House pushed back on Carson’s statement during a briefing on Thursday.
When a reporter asked about Carson’s debate comment, National Security Adviser Susan Rice said she has “not seen any evidence of Chinese military involvement in Syria.”
For his part, Carson rebuffed the White House’s pushback, boasting that he had “better” sources than those in the administration.
“I’m surprised my sources are better than theirs,” he said at a press conference in South Carolina on Friday. To that claim, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest replied Friday that he was “speechless.”
The Carson campaign’s statement did not mention any evidence of a boots-on-the-ground Chinese military presence in Syria, but said there is still evidence of Chinese involvement.
“While certain Western media sources have alleged that China will actively aid the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war, Dr. Carson has seen no evidence of that,” the statement said. “… Regardless, Dr. Carson’s claim that China is exerting its influence and has a presence in the ongoing Syrian conflict is well-supported by evidence, even if it is not evidence commonly available to or easily accessible by journalists without the requisite language skills or knowledge about Chinese military affairs.”
Carson’s debate comments were criticised in the media, and some experts suggested they exposed his relative inexperience on foreign-policy matters.
Despite whatever Chinese weapons are reportedly in Syria, it’s unlikely that China will actually get more significantly involved in Syria.
“China makes it a practice to not get extended into military conflicts in the Middle East,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said at the White House press briefing on Thursday. “Their policy over years, if not decades, is to not be overextended in military exercises.”
This echoes what foreign-policy experts have said about the likelihood of Chinese involvement in Syria.
“This is very far from China’s fight,” Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group and author of the book “Superpower,” told Business Insider on Wednesday. “They don’t want responsibility for it, there’s no potential diplomatic or security win for Beijing.”
Carson was correct in his debate comments that Russia is involved in Syria. Russian warplanes started bombing rebel targets in Syria in late September. Experts say Russia’s campaign in Syria aims to prop up the Assad regime under the guise of fighting the terrorist group ISIS (also known as the Islamic State or ISIL).
Many other factions are players in the conflict — Assad is fighting jihadist groups as well as moderate Syrian rebels, and the US has been conducting airstrikes on ISIS targets in the country.
Here’s the full memo, including the reports the campaign attached about Chinese weapons showing up in Syria:
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