The announcement of the Sino-Syrian strategic partnership last week, the second most comprehensive diplomatic partnership in China’s foreign policy system, sent a political message to the West. It also was a welcome boost to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as his government emerges from isolation on the world stage.
But looking more broadly at Assad's four-day visit to China — the first since 2004 — this new step in Sino-Syrian relations is worth little more than the paper it was written on. What is happening inside the wartorn Middle Eastern country tells a different story: the announcement comes as anti-government protests in Suwayda enter their second month. Thousands have taken to the streets in defiance of Damascus and calling for Assad to resign, echoes of protests that rocked Syria in 2011.
Furthermore, there have been no Chinese-funded projects announced since Syria joined the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in January 2022, indicating Beijing does not see Syria as a safe place yet to invest in.
Syria is far from an ideal diplomatic or economic partner. However, what it lacks in stability and returns on investment, it makes up for in desperation caused by its economic isolation and enthusiasm for closer relations with China. Nonetheless, without political stability, sustainable economic recovery and development are unlikely. Ongoing political unrest emanating from Damascus' reliance on the drug Captagon's trade and disobedient militias, which violate so-called reconciliation agreements that already limit citizens’ rights, as well as Syria’s division between external powers, will likely prove this strategic partnership to be little more than a notional upgrade to Syria’s relations with China.