Chinese diplomats in Syria as well as Beijing’s embassy are under regular threat from rebel attacks, China’s ambassador to Syria has confided to local media outlets.
In an interview with the Global Times, Zhang Xun, China's ambassador to Syria said that Beijing’s embassy in Damascus has increasingly been caught in the cross-hairs of fighting between rebel and government forces in recent months.
In one notable instance, shrapnel and shell fragments from a mortar attack deflected off a nearby building and landed inside the Chinese embassy.
“A shell hit the ceiling of a building some 60 meters away and the fragments bounced into our building,” Zhang told reporters from the Global Times, showing them the actual shells, which he kept in an envelope in his office.
Zhang said that in another attack last month, Syrian rebels fired mortar shells at President Bashar al-Assad's motorcade. They missed the Syrian leader but hit a building that was located just 10 meters from the Chinese embassy. The shock from the attack damaged the nearby embassy, however.
“Several windows in our corridor were shattered. Some of the shrapnel fell onto my balcony,” Zhang said of the attack, which took place on the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.
According to the report, the Chinese embassy is located in the heart of Damascus near the Bashar al-Assad’s presidential palace and key military buildings, which unsurprisingly are often the targets of rebel attacks.
Another diplomat from the embassy told the Global Times that Chinese personnel have been targeted directly by rebel forces, particularly when they are meeting with Syrian officials. Indeed, according to a Want China Times report, Zhang was nearly killed in a sniper attack during a meeting he held with Syria’s foreign minister.
The Global Times article says that Zhang now keeps a bullet-proof vest, gas mask and pistol in his office.
There are also reports that the rebels are actively plotting attacks against the Chinese embassy, presumably in retaliation for China’s continued support for the Assad regime. The Want China Times report said that a brigade commander in the Free Syrian Army, one of the rebel forces fighting the Syrian government, has vowed to launch a “full-scale attack” on the Chinese embassy.
Meanwhile, the Global Times claims that a local driver the embassy had employed was arrested earlier this year by Syrian authorities for allegedly planning to place bombs under the embassy car. The article, which said the driver had confessed to the crime, added that he had been recruited by Syrian rebel forces during a trip to Jordan in February.
Following the incident Beijing assigned eight armed Chinese police officers to protect the embassy and its personnel. The only other Chinese embassies to have such protection are those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ambassador Zhang admitted that he has been frightened by the uptick in violence.
“To be honest, it would be a lie if I said I'm not a little bit scared," Zhang was quoted as saying in the report.
This was a dramatic admission given Zhang’s past statements on the issue of safety in the country. Soon after taking over the ambassadorship in 2011, Zhang dismissed concerns that Chinese nationals in Syria were in any danger.
“Their lives are guaranteed and their properties as well,” Zhang told state media at the time, referring to Chinese nationals. “"There is no need for extra worries.”
The Chinese nationals themselves apparently disagreed, judging from the exodus away from the war-torn nation in the nearly two years since then. According to Chinese media reports, there were around 1,200 Chinese nationals inside Syria when Zhang took over as ambassador. Today there are just 20, not counting the embassy staff itself. Eight of those remaining are reporters.
This is probably a huge relief to the Chinese government. Beijing was profoundly affected by the situation in Libya in early 2010, when the Chinese government had to evacuate 36,000 nationals from that country in just 10 days after civil war broke out as part of the initial Arab Spring wave.
Nonetheless, China has remained defiant on maintaining a diplomatic presence in Syria. According to the Global Times report, China is one of just a dozen or so countries that haven’t closed down their embassies during the past two and a half years of fighting. Some of the other countries that have maintained their diplomatic presence in Syria include Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela and Cuba.
Chinese diplomats in Syria say they intend to continue to hold out in Syria.
“"Diplomats must stick to their positions until the last Chinese national willing to leave Syria is pulled out,” GT quoted one person at the embassy as saying.