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China shows greater interest in Syria amid pandemic, US tensions

China is looking to increase its influence in war-torn Syria, and using the coronavirus pandemic to accelerate these plans.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem (L) shakes hands of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (R)  after a press conference at Diaoyutai state guesthouse in Beijing on June 18, 2019. Fred Dufour/Pool via REUTERS - RC1583F62660

China’s expanding presence in the Middle East places Syria as a strategic target for its desired sphere of influence, while tensions with the United States amid the coronavirus pandemic are now propelling its increased interest in the country.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has tried to court China, seeking Beijing’s help to legitimize his rule over the country and restore the damage from the nine-year-long conflict. It seems that Assad feels China would secure a viable post-war Syria under his auspices.

Last December, Assad welcomed greater Chinese investment, saying, “Now, with the liberation of most areas, we have started discussions with a number of Chinese companies experienced in reconstruction.”

He continued, “It is well known that rebuilding countries destroyed partially or totally by war is very profitable and has high returns on investment."

On May 31, Syria’s Foreign Ministry backed China’s introducing of national security legislation and its imposition of sovereignty over Hong Kong.

“Syria has been eager to promote itself as part of the Belt and Road Initiative [BRI], often calling on the mythology of the Silk Road and the importance Damascus holds in that history,” Lucille Greer, research fellow at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told Al-Monitor.

“Officials highlight Syria's geographic connections to Europe and Africa, a point that China echoes as well. There are plans to include Syria in the slew of railroads that China is building in the region in the name of the BRI,” Greer added.

Assad’s military backers — Russia and Iran — lack the financial means to meet Syria’s reconstruction needs, estimated between $250 million and $400 billion.

Though Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia are warming to Damascus — particularly after Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed called Assad March 27, expressing the UAE’s support for the Syrian people in this time — they would struggle to bypass European Union and US sanctions on Syria. Therefore, China is the only country Assad can turn to.

China certainly has interest in investing in Syria. The Syrian-Chinese Business Council states on its website that “Syrian and foreign companies will participate [in Syria’s reconstruction], and Chinese companies will have the largest share.” Both states have strong trade ties, while Beijing and Damascus have signed various memorandums of understanding, including to cover repairing and protecting Syrian heritage sites and exhibit Chinese products in Syria.

It has also offered limited humanitarian aid in 2017, signing aid agreements worth $40 million, showing Beijing has so far held back on its desires to greatly invest in the country. However, China’s investments in post-war Iraq may serve as a blueprint for its aspirations in Syria.

China, along with Russia, has repeatedly vetoed United Nations Security Council resolutions against the Assad regime, showing its alignment with Moscow on Syria.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s ideological and security concerns make the Assad regime seem more appealing. Like Assad does against his opposition in Syria, China utilizes counterterrorism rhetoric to justify its widely criticized crackdown on Xinjiang’s Uighur Muslim population, which Syria supports. As military advisers and fighters from Xinjiang have operated alongside Syria’s opposition, Beijing seeks cooperation with the regime over this issue.

“There were also rumors during the Arab Spring that the democratic fervor would spread to China, which made Beijing very nervous,” said Greer. “Syria plays up this insecurity in order to keep alive the relevance of China’s partnership with them.”

“China has supported the Assad regime, in line with their stated principles of noninterference in the country's affairs. Yet this is largely a farce given that they actively prefer the regime,” James Dorsey, award-winning journalist and senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, told Al-Monitor, thus highlighting China’s favorability toward Syria’s regime.

“At the beginning of the battle for Idlib, Beijing weighed the possibility of sending in China’s military force,” Dorsey noted. “Yet military involvement was always inconceivable, and it may simply go along with ‘a Gaza Strip model’ for Idlib but would prefer for it to be retaken.”

While Assad’s control over the country would provide stability for Chinese investments, Beijing is also cautious of security risks for Chinese personnel and investments, having withdrawn business opportunities from Yemen and Libya following their conflicts. Meanwhile, past pressure from Washington and Turkey’s current involvement in Idlib means Beijing has previously sought to work around this and avoid overt interference.

Meanwhile, amid Beijing’s previously increased attentiveness in the country, China has upped its focus in Syria over the country’s coronavirus outbreak, while it has used ‘COVID-19 diplomacy’ to bolster its ties elsewhere regionally, particularly the Gulf.

On May 18, Yao Shaojun, China's acting deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, called for de-escalation and cooperation over the virus that causes COVID-19, adding, “There is a window of opportunity to promote inclusive dialogue and create favorable conditions for a political solution [to address the virus]."

However, China has delivered limited coronavirus aid to Syria, including just two cardboard boxes worth of supplies on May 13, and around 2,000 testing kits on April 15. It has not altered its policies because of the virus; its gestures are more symbolic and reputational boosting, presenting itself as a leader in fighting the virus.

On the other hand, increasing global Chinese and American tensions — which have spiked after accusations over the other’s handling of the virus — could prompt Beijing further toward Syrian investment. Dorsey noted, “As China currently has three ports in Haifa and Ashkelon in Israel and Piraeus in Athens, China’s port empire may be threatened given that there is serious pressure from Washington on Israel to relinquish Haifa.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview while visiting Jerusalem May 14, “We do not want the Chinese Communist Party to have access to Israeli infrastructure, Israeli communication systems, all of the things that put Israeli citizens at risk.” Later that month, Israel rejected a $1.5 billion contract for China to construct a power plant.

While the United States warned its other Middle Eastern allies against accepting Chinese investment, these evident risks to China’s strategic ties with Israel would force Beijing to focus on countries that are nonaligned with the United States, namely Syria.

“China would therefore eye up investing in ports in Syria’s Latakia and Tartus, thus looking further toward Syria, should it lose influence in Haifa,” Dorsey added. “While China is also looking at Tripoli’s port in Lebanon, Syria would be a central part of Beijing’s leverage over the eastern Mediterranean, helping it bypass the Suez Canal, and outmatch the US Fifth Fleet.”

In October 2018, China provided 800 electrical power generators to Syria’s Latakia port, showing its preparedness to invest there. Last December, Russia announced plans to invest $500 million in Syria’s Tartus port, yet Dorsey argued that this will not hinder China’s involvement, given their close alliance.

The threat of US sanctions would have previously deterred China from excessive involvement in Syria, yet the harsh climate of US-China relations today may trigger Beijing revising its previously restricted stance.

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