Ben Carson suggested during the Fox Business News debate in Milwaukee that China is involved in the Syrian conflict.
When asked if he supports President Barack Obama’s decision to put 50 special operations troops in Syria, Carson said any presence is better than no presence, especially given the forces at play.
Here’s what he said in context:
Moderator Maria Bartiromo: "Dr. Carson, you were against putting troops on the ground in Iraq and against a large military force in Afghanistan. Do you support the president’s decision to now put 50 special ops forces in Syria and leave 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan?"
Carson: "Well, putting the special ops people in there is better than not having them there, because they — that’s why they’re called special ops, they’re actually able to guide some of the other things that we’re doing there.
"And what we have to recognize is that Putin is trying to really spread his influence throughout the Middle East. This is going to be his base. And we have to oppose him there in an effective way.
"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."
We were curious about Carson’s assertion that the "Chinese are there" in Syria. According to the White House, China and experts, they are not. But before we dive into that issue, let’s sort out some semantics.
What Carson meant
Multiple media outlets, including our friends at the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, took Carson’s remarks to mean that Chinese troops are in Syria. But the Carson camp forwarded us a statement refuting that interpretation.
Rather, his actual point was that China is providing "various military weapons and equipment that Syria is using in the current conflict," according to the statement which also included several links to articles on that point.
"Dr. Carson does not believe that China is currently fighting in or deploying troops to Syria, and contrary to press reports, he has never made that assertion," the statement reads. "Regardless, Dr. Carson's claim that China is exerting its influence and has 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."
However, Carson seems to be backtracking.
On Nov. 11, the day after the debate, a top Carson adviser spoke specifically about "Chinese military advisers" in Syria when defending Carson’s remarks.
"During Dr. Carson’s conversations with military operatives and people in Iraq, in that part of the world, (they) discussed with him multiple reports that Chinese military advisers are on the ground in Syria operating with Russia (sic) special-operations personnel," the adviser told Business Insider.
A Carson spokesperson also referred the Washington Post’s Fact Checker to a few blog posts speculating explicitly about Chinese military personnel in Syra.
We also ran Carson’s statement by an expert on political campaign rhetoric.
"Saying ‘the Chinese are there’ means the Chinese are there, not just that their weapons are there," said Kathleen Kendall, a communications professor at the University of Maryland.
"He is making a clear, firm assertion. Had he made a more nuanced statement, such as ‘there is a Chinese influence there,’ there would be some room for debate on his meaning."
No Chinese in Syria
What’s the source of the idea that China is in Syria? The posts Carson’s spokesperson sent to the Washington Post all link back to a Sept. 27 report from the Lebanon-based news site Al-Masdar Al-’Arabi. According to the news site, a senior officer in the Syrian Arab Army said Chinese military personnel would join Russian marines in the Syria in the next six weeks.
The story then got picked up by Russian state media, and the overseas media attention led China's Foreign Ministry to officially deny China’s presence in Syria in mid October, while its state-run media characterized the reports as "speculative nonsense," according to Reuters.
Carson’s statement also prompted responses from the White House. Press secretary Josh Earnest said he was "speechless" over Carson’s claim that he has better intelligence than the administration.
"I really can’t speak to what he was referring to, but unless you’re talking about having a diplomatic presence, I’m not sure what he was referencing," National Security Adviser Susan Rice said at a press conference. "I have not seen evidence of Chinese military involvement in Syria."
Experts told us it would be very uncharacteristic for China — a country with a longstanding, though gradually changing policy of nonintervention — to send troops abroad, especially to the Middle East.
"The Chinese have been very, very clear from day one that Syria is not something they want to take responsibility for," said Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia Group, a global consulting firm. "It would go against absolutely everything we know about China. And Syria is the world's worst morass. ... The Chinese want no part of this."
"There is no possibility that China is planning on sending troops into Syria," said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "China doesn't send troops abroad except for peacekeeping purposes. China isn't interested in taking on the role of global policeman."
Both Bremmer and Glaser noted that official Chinese statements on Syria are vague comments promoting peace and self-rule.
"China opposes easy interference in other countries' domestic affairs. China supports Syria's sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, as well as its approach to find its own path of development that is consistent with its national circumstances," China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi told a visiting Syrian official in mid October.
The same sentiment is expressed in a five-point proposal for the Syrian conflict put forward by China during the United Nations’ Geneva II peace conference in 2014, as well as the four-step initiative it offered at the Syria peace talks in Vienna at the end of October 2015.
That came as news to Bremmer, who noted he’s not surprised that the neurosurgeon flubbed a statement about foreign policy. Is it possible that some Chinese officials are in Syria discreetly?
"There are 1.3 billion Chinese, they're in a lot of places. China’s got an economic interest in Syria obviously, so would I be stunned that there were a couple of Chinese intelligence guys on the ground? No, but they're not playing a military role," Bremmer said.
Carson said the Chinese have a presence in Syria.
In context, Carson’s comments suggested a military presence. That claim appears to be lifted from unconfirmed blog posts and a news report by a Lebanese news site. China and the White House have denied that Chinese troops are in Syria, and experts told us there’s no evidence to the contrary. Even if Carson meant something less than a military presence, China seems to be taking a hands-off approach to the conflict in Syria.
We rate Carson’s claim False.