China donates communications equipment to Syrian regime, why?
Enab Baladi – Muhammed Fansa
China’s recent aid to the Syrian regime in the form of equipment and a communications network has raised questions about the motives of Beijing, which has poor investments and near-nil imports when it comes to Syria, suggesting other unmentioned gains.
On 20 July, the Syrian regime’s Minister of Communications, Iyad al-Khatib, signed with the Chinese Ambassador to Syria, Feng Biao, an aid agreement, including communications equipment for Damascus.
The aid reportedly aims to improve the local infrastructure network as part of China’s contribution to “reconstruction” in Syria, with aid equipment delivered in two batches to the Syrian Ministry of Communications.
On 28 July, the American Breaking Defense website published a report saying that China’s recent communications aid to the Syrian regime was a “façade” of military aid that could limit Israel’s ability to bomb targets in Syria.
According to an Israeli defense source’s statement to the website, in recent months, Chinese experts have visited some of the hard-hit Syrian military installations during the past years of conflict.
Israel fears that the objective of Chinese aid will be to rebuild the Syrian regime’s forces by providing it with the communications systems required by the Syrian military communications network. Israeli sources believe that many Syrian regime forces’ installations will be rebuilt by the Chinese.
The sources also warned that the Chinese might try to sell some of their defense systems to the Syrian regime, which could “complicate” Israeli operations in Syria.
The former head of the Israeli Intelligence Agency (Mossad), Danny Yatom, told the website, “The Chinese will undoubtedly implement major programs in Syria. Israel must ensure that this fact does not limit its liberty to operate in Syria”.
“China’s operations in many countries are proving that there are always other aspects of what might seem like a normal business,” he added.
Threatened cyber security
China is one of the advanced countries in the field of digital communications, and it has the capabilities to become one of the most important countries active in electronic surveillance and cyber espionage. The largest private Chinese telecommunications company, Huawei, has faced charges of espionage in the government’s interest both inside and outside China.
Recently, the Canadian government announced a ban on the use of equipment from Huawei and fellow Chinese technology company ZTE in its 5G networks due to national security concerns.
Before that, Australia, New Zealand, and Britain have taken the same measures. Canada also detained Huawei’s chief financial officer on the basis of US sanctions in 2018. Later in 2021, it concluded a prisoner exchange deal with China.
On the other hand, documents leaked by former US intelligence agent Edward Snowden revealed that the US and the UK had spied on many decision-makers in different countries, such as former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, demonstrating Sino-Western rivalry in the field of surveillance and espionage.
According to what the Syrian professor of economics and the program manager at the Political and Economic Networks Observatory, Karam Shaar, had told Enab Baladi, China shows interest in Syria’s information technology security due to the presence of fighters from Central Asia in Syria who are among the most wanted by the ruling Communist Party in China.
Shaar does not rule out that the Chinese government may attempt, through communications aid, to obtain more information on those fighters who, according to China, are threatening its national security, despite the fact that most of these combatants are not located in regime-held areas.
In 2016, an Uyghur suicide bomber targeted the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan. The security services said that the attack was planned and carried out by the Turkistan Islamic Party active in Syria.
Many Uyghurs and fighters from Central Asia traveled to Syria via Turkey during the early stages of the Syrian conflict. According to research published in the Perspectives on Terrorism journal in August 2021, the number of Central Asian fighters who traveled to Syria and Iraq is estimated at 5,650 people.
Strategic, not economic importance
Syrian researcher Karam Shaar believes that the Syrian-Chinese relations are used by the Chinese government as “leverage” on Western governments rather than real ambitions to invest or build sustainable relations.
Shaar mentioned that China had long talked about “reconstruction” in Syria, but it had not actually kept any of its promises. Perhaps the most prominent of these promises was when China signed a memorandum of understanding with the Syrian regime on 12 January, under which Syria joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) years after it began talking about such accession. However, this remains without any noticeable effect so far.
The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative aims at connecting China to the world and delivering its goods as easily and expeditiously as possible to all continents via two land and sea routes and relies on the establishment of infrastructure in cooperation with more than 68 countries.
According to the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), the regime deems the initiative assistance to “open up broad prospects for cooperation with China and a number of partner countries involved in the initiative in several areas, including the exchange of goods, technology, and capital, the revitalization of the movement of individuals, as well as cultural exchange.”
As stated in a report by the American NewLines Institute for Strategy and Policy, China sought to integrate the Syrian regime with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and tried to take advantage of the country’s pressing “reconstruction” needs to establish a “footprint” in the heart of the Levant and strengthen its influence in the Middle East.
According to the report, China recognizes the Syrian regime’s need for it and therefore relies on it to achieve its political and economic objectives in the Levant region, including the accumulation of regional influence at the expense of the US.
Since 2016, China has sought to create opportunities for its companies to participate in “reconstruction” in Syria, as confirmed by its special envoy to Syria, Xie Xiaoyan, at the time, stating that China is “confident that it will form part of the post-war reconstruction process in Syria.”
Meanwhile, a report published by The Diplomat magazine indicated that Chinese companies investing in Syria would face many obstacles and risks. Although the “war in Syria is nearing an end,” this does not mean the end of the conflict. The fluctuations and changes in control by the forces present on Syrian territory, whether they are the Syrian regime or American and Turkish-backed forces, may be of concern to many Chinese investors.
US economic sanctions against the Syrian regime may also be a reason for some Chinese financial institutions to avoid being involved in investments in Syria for fear of sanctions that may affect them.
According to an Operations and Policy Center (OPC) report, China’s involvement in Syria depends on US actions in the conflict, meaning that Beijing will seek to fill the void left by successive US administrations by taking on a more central economic role in the Middle East.
Currently, the strategic and security importance of Syria outweighs its economic importance to China. For China to meaningfully invest in Syria, it needs the right conditions for this, starting with a lasting political solution and a cessation of hostilities.
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