China entrenches its presence in Syria amid mutual interests and different goals

Chinese President Xi Jinping and the head of the Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad (edited by Enab Baladi)

Chinese President Xi Jinping and the head of the Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad (edited by Enab Baladi)

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Enab Baladi – Jana al-Issa

As of the beginning of this year, China has boosted its political and economic presence and influence in Syria, raising questions about the reasons for Beijing’s increasing interests in Syria.

On its part, the Syrian regime has been keen on showing its support to the Chinese government, even in issues of no interest to Beijing, where any position expressed by the regime would be of little to no weight. Such was the case when the regime’s government announced its solidarity with Beijing in the COVID-19 origins investigations. 

On 27 June, the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates stated that China is facing a “political attack” following accusations that it was “not fully transparent” in the international probe into the origin of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. 

The Ministry announced its support for the government of China, arguing that from a purely scientific point of view, the detection of the source of the coronavirus is “long-term and hard work.”

The Syrian position came after China, represented by its president Xi Jinping, congratulated the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, for winning the presidential elections held amid an international and western boycott. Jinping said that his country would provide all possible assistance to Syria to revive its economy, improve Syrians’ living conditions, and combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

On 1 June, the Russian TASS News Agency reported that the Chinese president had sent a congratulatory telegram to the Syrian regime’s president after winning the presidential elections. The telegram notes, “China strongly supports Syria in protecting its sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity, and will provide all possible assistance to Syria in combating the coronavirus pandemic, revitalizing the country’s economy and improving the lives of its people.”

The Chinese president also said that China would “promote the progress of Chinese-Syrian cooperation to a new level,” Tass agency reported. 

Jinping added, “I attach great importance to the development of China-Syria relations and stand ready to work with al-Assad to take the 65th anniversary of bilateral diplomatic ties and to achieve greater achievements in China-Syria relations.”

China is among the leading countries which have maintained their relations with the Syrian regime and supported it politically, economically, and financially since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution.

Since 2011, China, along with Russia, has vetoed several United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions condemning the regime’s practices as war crimes.

What lies behind China’s support of the Syrian regime?

Economic researcher Khaled Turkawi told Enab Baladi that China and Syria have a similar internal policy bringing the two countries closer. Like Syria, China is considered a totalitarian state of a single-party ruling system suppressing all dissenting voices.

He added that any observer of the history of China’s foreign policy would notice that it has always been a supporter of authoritarian regimes, having previously suppressed many revolutions in neighboring countries, fearing being affected by the fall of these oppressive regimes that China deems friendly states.  

As for China’s support of the Syrian regime, Turkawi pointed out that China eyes Syrian markets and the markets of the eastern Mediterranean to consolidate its economic project designed to promote Chinese goods and distribute them worldwide.

Political researcher at Jusoor for Studies Center Wael Alwan told Enab Baladi that the Syrian government’s public deficits, administrative failure, and continuing economic collapse do not cancel the fact that Syria as strategic geography has been sought after by conflicting international and regional forces, namely the Chinese Russian and Iranian alliance against the US-led West.   

The New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy based in Washington, DC. has issued an article saying that “China has sought to integrate Syria into its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), leveraging the country’s dire reconstruction needs to establish a foothold in the heart of the Levant, enabling China to further project influence into the Middle East.”

The article also mentioned that “China knows it can rely on a friendly Syrian government to help achieve its geopolitical and geoeconomic goals in the Levant, including the accumulation of regional influence at the expense of the United States.”

Since 2016, China has sought to create investment opportunities for its companies to participate in the reconstruction of Syria. Back then, the Special Envoy of the Chinese government on the Syrian issue, Xie Xiaoyan, said that China is “confident that it will be part of the post-war reconstruction process in Syria.”

Since the beginnings of the Syrian revolution, China has provided various forms of humanitarian assistance and financial grants to the regime’s government. It also supported the regime in its efforts to combat the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in Syria through medical aids and vaccine shipments.

Syrian regime’s gains from Sino-Syrian relations

Political researcher Alwan connected the dots between the regime’s recent support of China in the COVID-19 origin probe and Chinese president Jinping’s statement in early June that China intends to provide “all possible assistance to Syria to revive its economy and improve the living conditions of Syrians, as well as help Syria combat the coronavirus pandemic.”

Alwan explained that the Russian-Iranian rivalry for influence in Syria had placed the regime’s military, security, political, and economic decisions in the hands of Russians and Iranians. Even though the regime benefits from both sides’ support, it eyes further gains through strengthening the Chinese presence in Syria. 

According to Alwan, the Chinese investments in Syria might help ease the regime’s economic attrition, also suffered by the regime’s two traditional supporters Russia and Iran. 

An article published by The Diplomat magazine mentioned that “the Chinese endorsement of the re-election of president Bashar al-Assad last May would be especially welcome by al-Assad as he looks to leverage it into a more tangible form of assistance. Previously, al-Assad has played up the Sino-Syrian connection as a way to demonstrate that he is not diplomatically isolated and that he has a number of potential partners to support his reconstruction efforts.”

The article added that “Having access to outside capital is vital for Syria’s reconstruction since it is highly unlikely that domestic sources will be sufficient. In 2017 the World Bank calculated that Syria’s economy had shrunk by 226 billion US dollars (USD) between the start of the uprising in 2011 and 2016 – twice the country’s total gross domestic product (GDP). A year later, that estimate had risen further, to 350-400 billion USD.

According to the article, “The highest estimates put Russian and Iranian assistance at 7 billion USD and 23 billion USD, respectively. Even if such figures are matched in the postwar period, they will not come near to the amount required.”

“These reasons have made China a more attractive proposition for some in Damascus, especially since other forms of foreign capital – including from the West – are likely to remain unavailable so long as al-Assad remains in power,” the article said.

China’s role in Syria’s future map

Economic researcher Turkawi believes that China’s aspirations in Syria are confined to the limits of supporting the regime and any investments in Syria in the coming years. 

Alwan ruled out any military or security Chinese role in Syria in the future, adding that the regime would not mind such a role if China aspired to achieve this goal.

Meanwhile, The Diplomat’s article said that “There are several hurdles that would face Chinese investors and firms in Syria. One obstacle is that although the war may be coming to an end in Syria, it does not mean an end to the conflict. Substantial parts of the country remain outside of al-Assad’s control, and foreign troops remain on Syrian territory, including Turkish and American forces. As a result, Chinese investors may be wary of the continuing volatility.” 

The article added that “International and US economic sanctions on the regime are another risk that has incentivized some Chinese financial institutions to avoid involvement in Syria for fear of being blacklisted as a result.”

“Russian and Iranian officials and businesses have competed to gain the ear of the regime in order to acquire potentially lucrative contracts for themselves. Al-Assad could well seek to do the same with Chinese firms. Not only would that be problematic for them, having to navigate between Syrian, Russian, and Iranian interests, but owing to their previously limited involvement in the country, they would also have the disadvantage of being less familiar with the local terrain.”

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