China appoints first special envoy for Syria crisis

BEIJING (Reuters) - China on Tuesday appointed its first special envoy for the Syrian crisis, a career diplomat who has served as ambassador to Iran, as it seeks a more active role in the Middle East.

Men ride a motorbike near damaged buildings in the rebel-controlled area of Jobar, a suburb of Damascus, Syria March 23, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

While relying on the region for oil supplies, China tends to leave Middle Eastern diplomacy to the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, namely the United States, Britain, France and Russia.

But China has been trying to get more involved, including recently hosting both Syria’s foreign minister and opposition figures, though at different times.

The new special envoy for Syria is Xie Xiaoyan, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a daily news briefing. He was most recently China’s ambassador to Ethiopia and the African Union.

“As a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, China has always proactively dedicated itself to the appropriate resolution of the Syria issue,” Hong said, adding that a political solution was the only way out.

China supports the mediation efforts of U.N. Syria special envoy Staffan de Mistura and has provided humanitarian assistance to the region, Hong said.

China’s appointment of its own special envoy is to help push the peace process and “to better proactively put forward China’s wisdom” and its proposals, he added.

Xie, 62, is a deeply experienced diplomat very familiar with the Middle East, Hong said.

“We believe he will certainly fulfill this mission well.”

China has appointed special envoys for crisis zones before, to mixed results.

Its African envoys have been deeply involved in South Sudan, but its previous special envoys to the Middle East have had little tangible effect.

There is a truce in place in Syria, accepted by President Bashar al-Assad’s government and most of his foes, the first of its kind since the war began five years ago.

It has been accompanied by the first peace talks attended by the warring sides. It does not apply to areas held by Islamic State or the Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al Qaeda.

Reporting by Ben Blanchard