China’s Middle East new roles draw changes in Syria
Enab Baladi – Masoud Tatuz
China is playing new roles in the Middle East region, mainly reflected in the Beijing-brokered Saudi-Iranian agreement, and such a development opens the door to questions about the effects of these roles on the Syrian file.
An Iranian delegation arrived in Saudi Arabia on April 12, in preparation for the reopening of diplomatic missions in Riyadh, after seven years of severing diplomatic relations between the two countries.
The arrival of the Iranian delegation comes just days after a similar visit by a Saudi delegation to Tehran following a meeting in China between the foreign ministers of the two countries on March 10.
Saudi Arabia and Iran, on their way to mending relations, pledged to respect the principles of national sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs under an agreement signed by the two parties with the mediation of China, which is trying to play a greater role in the Middle East, in light of the US administration’s focus away from the region.
Foray into Middle East diplomacy
China’s mediation of the Saudi-Iran normalization agreement signals a potential break from its long-standing policy of keeping to a minimal and economically oriented regional footprint, said Amr Hamzawy, the senior fellow and the director of the Carnegie Middle East Program.
By successfully bringing two of the Middle East’s bitterest rivals to the negotiation table, China aims to build credibility as a capable partner in a region that has at times protested American security disengagement and bemoaned Washington’s strategic neglect, Hamzawy highlighted in his analysis for Carnegie Endowment.
China’s change in approach has been welcomed by regional actors hoping to finally bury the hatchet of a decades-long rivalry—one that has had significant spillover since the Arab Spring.
China’s modus operandi of negotiated settlements is also attractive to a region that has varyingly criticized US administrations since 2011 for their strategic withdrawal and bristled at failed American interventions in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and beyond, said Hamzawy.
While China may be able to tout its mediation of the Saudi-Iran agreement as a diplomatic success—one that has long eluded the United States—Saudi Arabia and Iran must actually live up to the agreement. Whether its mediation efforts bear fruit moving forward is not up to China, and what these attempts will mean for the Middle East and for future Chinese involvement in the region is an open question, according to the director of the Carnegie Middle East Program.
“As it wades into stormier political waters, China will have to confront strategic challenges that compromise its show of neutrality. The success of its new Middle Eastern strategy will depend on local realities on the ground—chiefly Iranian regional policy,” Hamzawy assured.
Economically speaking, the senior fellow added that “China continues to develop its economic ties across regional divides, cementing its position as the largest trading partner to regional powers such as Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.”
China brings new allies to Syria
As a consequence of the Saudi-Iranian agreement, Riyadh agreed to reopen its embassy in Damascus after 11 years and restore diplomatic relations with the regime, one of Iran’s biggest allies in the region.
Riyadh also hinted at unfreezing Syria’s membership in the League of Arab States, in addition to the visit of the Saudi Foreign Minister, Faisal bin Farhan, to Damascus on April 18, the first visit of its kind since the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011.
For her part, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said that China welcomes the improvement of relations between Syria and other Arab countries and supports Syria’s immediate return to the Arab family.
She added that this development helps the Arab countries achieve solidarity and development and enhance the “strategic independence” of the countries of the region.
After the Iranian-Saudi agreement, Syria will be one of the disputed areas between the influence of Tehran and Riyadh, and Chinese economic diplomacy can work in favor of Riyadh, according to Kamal Alam, a researcher at the British Institute of Statecraft.
Meanwhile, an analyst on Syria, Kamil Autrakji, told Middle East Eye that the current Saudi leadership had shown greater flexibility than its predecessors, possibly after years of striving to establish a regional order free of Iran’s influence.
“The Saudis realized that they needed a new strategy, and the Saudis and the Turks came to the conclusion that in order to restore normalcy and stability in the region, they had to step back from the Syrian file,” Autrakji added.
For his part, Alam says that due to the US preoccupation with helping Ukraine in its war with Russia, and the lack of a coherent US strategy in Syria, Saudi Arabia welcomes Chinese efforts to help end the conflict in Syria and the Middle East region in general.
With the Saudis joining the Beijing-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), it also shows a change on the part of the Saudi Kingdom to a neutral position rather than considering it under the influence of the United States, which it has been in since the founding of the kingdom, according to Alam.
And 17 countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including Saudi Arabia and Syria, have joined the Belt and Road Initiative, known as the “Silk Road Project,” which is Beijing’s initiative to create infrastructures around the world to better connect China via land and sea routes.
Alam explained that economic stability is the core of the Saudi-Iranian deal, as both the Chinese and the Saudis are proposing investments in Iran.
Beijing wants to invest in Lebanese ports as part of its economic strategy in the Middle East and the Silk Road Project, and therefore China welcomes the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement, says Alam.
For the first time, China played an active role in the Middle East in terms of diplomatic moves in Syria, as it participated in the Astana process (a track being run by Russia, Turkey, and Iran) and obstructed Security Council resolutions related to Syria, to confirm its supportive position for Damascus.
Beijing’s economic interests and investments in the Middle East necessitated its playing a diplomatic role, as the region is important to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, in addition to ensuring the security of Chinese investments in the Saudi energy sector, which is threatened by Houthi missiles, the Foreign Affairs magazine said.
China is working on expanding its economic footprint in Iran, and it is interested in supporting Moscow’s plan to develop a transit corridor for oil trade through Iran to allow Russian trade to reach global markets without using the Suez Canal, according to the magazine.
Foreign Affairs says Tehran and Riyadh both benefit from working through China to restore regional relations.
For Saudi Arabia, the Beijing-led agreement marks a major strategic shift in the kingdom’s politics. Relations between Riyadh and Washington are at their lowest levels, as Riyadh is dissatisfied with US policy in the region, angry at the US unwillingness to support its interests against Iran in Syria and Yemen, and concerned about the US failure to defend the kingdom when its oil facilities were attacked by Iran in 2019.
The agreement with Tehran will not end Saudi Arabia’s fears of Iran’s aggressive actions, according to the magazine, but it will give Riyadh more time to enhance its security and diversify its strategic options.
For its part, Tehran welcomes China’s new role in the Middle East because it weakens US influence in the region and undermines the US-led sanctions system that has paralyzed the Iranian economy, according to Foreign Affairs.
Normalizing relations with the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council countries) would reduce the threat posed by the Abraham Accords, which were brokered by the administration of former US President Donald Trump and initiated closer intelligence and military coordination between Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (and later extended to Morocco and Sudan) and thus broadened the scope of the Iranian, Israeli and Arab Gulf conflict.
Tehran may be willing to accept bilateral relations between the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Israel, but it cannot tolerate an Arab-Israeli military alliance supported by the United States against it because the alliance poses a security threat to Tehran in the wake of the failed nuclear talks with the Biden administration, domestic political protests, and the growing Israeli presence in Azerbaijan, and the growing willingness by the new right-wing Israeli government to contemplate war to stop Iran’s nuclear program.
Saudi move faces US sanctions
The biggest factor preventing the Gulf states from normalizing relations with the Syrian regime is the US, European and Arab sanctions against Syria, says Andrew Tabler, the Martin J. Gross Senior Fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute.
“Regarding US sanctions, the restrictions stemming from the Caesar Act will sunset in 2024, so they would need to be reintroduced in Congress to remain in effect. Given the current mood on Capitol Hill, a renewal is all but assured. Yet Arab officials may believe they can change these US sentiments before 2024,” Tabler said.
Normalization of relations with Assad may lead to Syria’s re-acceptance to the Arab League and perhaps to the lifting of Arab sanctions on Syria, but US and European sanctions are almost impossible to lift without a fundamental change in Assad’s behavior, according to Tabler.
The Caesar Act sanctions prevent the financing of reconstruction activities in Syria. More importantly, these sanctions have secondary effects in the sense that they apply to any person, company, or entity that deals with the regime economically.
Tabler explained that even if Caesar’s sanctions are lifted, multiple layers of sanctions will remain on Syrian oil and other exports regardless of which party controls the White House.
There are new sanctions to be put in place. The National Defense Authorization Act of 2023 requires the Biden administration to develop an interagency strategy to disrupt and dismantle the regime’s drug production and trafficking.
If the Gulf states normalizing with the Assad regime fail to persuade it to change its behavior radically, they would almost certainly be subject to sanctions from the US Treasury Department.
Tabler said that unless there are major changes in the way Assad rules and acts, including his tolerance of the presence of militias and Iranian capabilities on Syrian soil and Captagon production facilities, normalization with Assad will be a waste of money in an attempt to compensate for the loss against Iran in Syria.
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