Assad in China: Syria's new economic and diplomatic ally?
On 21 September, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad landed at the Hangzhou airport in China for an extended visit with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.
Except for visits to Moscow, this trip constituted Assad’s first travel outside the Middle East since the Syrian crisis erupted in 2011 and his first time in China since 2004.
His motivations for visiting China were the same ones behind his Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) tour earlier this year to the UAE, Oman, and Saudi Arabia: financial support - most importantly, funds for reconstruction - and international legitimacy.
During the trip, Syria and China signed several agreements and announced their formation of a “strategic partnership”. Xi told Assad that this development marks an “important milestone in the history of bilateral relations”.
"Assad is looking to China as a source of investment in his collapsed economy, to assist with reconstruction, and to help Syria break out of international isolation"
“Faced with an international situation full of instability and uncertainty, China is willing to continue to work together with Syria, firmly support each other, promote friendly cooperation, and jointly defend international fairness and justice,” the Chinese president continued.
What will come out of these agreements and this “strategic partnership” remains to be seen.
Xi took the opportunity to blast the West’s policies vis-à-vis Syria, stressing Beijing’s opposition to “interference by external forces in Syria's internal affairs” and demanding that all “illegal unilateral sanctions against Syria” be lifted at once.
Assad’s government sees China as an important partner diplomatically, geopolitically, and economically. Damascus and Beijing have aligned closely on many issues, largely due to their shared desire to counter US hegemony and weaken Washington’s influence in the Middle East.
China, along with Russia, has used its position on the UN Security Council to block Western-backed resolutions against the Damascus regime. From the perspective of Assad’s government and its supporters, China is a global heavyweight that has stood by the Syrian regime since 2011.
Consistent with the “non-interference” pillar of Chinese foreign policy, Beijing has also condemned foreign military interventions and occupations in Syria against the will of Assad’s government such as those carried about by the US, Turkey, and Israel.
Like most Arab states, Syria has defended China’s side on issues pertaining to Xinjiang, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
In the past, Assad’s government has blasted the West for condemning China’s human rights record in Xinjiang, accusing the US and other Western nations of seeking to create wedges between Beijing and the wider Islamic world.
In August 2022, Syria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was quick to condemn US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
Damascus slammed it as “an act of hostility which doesn’t match with the international law, and doesn’t respect the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of the People’s Republic of China”.
Syria's economic crisis
The extent of Syria’s economic troubles is a significant motivating factor for Assad in strengthening his country’s relationship with Beijing.
The currency has plunged to record lows, which has driven hyperinflation and pushed roughly 90 percent of the Syrian population into poverty. Humanitarian crises plague the country while US and European sanctions continue strangling the Syrian economy.
“Syria’s economy is withering away, and the socio-economic situation is dreadful. The ruling elites around the president do very well, as always, but mass poverty and broken infrastructure are not something Assad can ignore. It cuts into his power base, too, and Syria is de-developing in ways that threaten the long-term functioning of the state,” explained Aron Lund, a fellow at Century International, to The New Arab.
However, there are good reasons to question China’s willingness to make the types of investments in Syria that officials in Damascus seek.
"Assad will no doubt exploit the visit to challenge the image of an isolated leader and will seek to portray himself as rehabilitated, at least to the Global South"
This is not only because of US sanctions, which Chinese firms often comply with, but also conditions in Syria, including poor governance, corruption, a lack of security, destroyed infrastructure, brain drain, and energy shortages, which make it difficult to imagine how a Chinese investment could pay off.
“Assad is looking to China as a source of investment in his collapsed economy, to assist with reconstruction, and to help Syria break out of international isolation,” Dr Mona Yacoubian, a senior adviser at the US Institute of Peace, told TNA.
“However, he is unlikely to be successful in the first two goals as China is notoriously risk-averse and has far better investment opportunities elsewhere in the region, not to mention the extensive sanctions on Syria that inhibit business and investment opportunities.”
Yet, China looks at Syria patiently and sees itself playing the long game. Unlike US officials who always focus on short-term achievements that can be sold to voters every two or four years, policymakers in Beijing focus on what can be accomplished many years or decades down the line, such as Syria’s role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
China's global infrastructure project
In January 2022, Syria joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Once conditions improve in Syria, China hopes to capitalise on the country’s geographic position in the Levant, taking advantage of Syria’s ports.
“Syria likely holds long-term interest for China, but nothing in the short to medium term with respect to [BRI] projects. Beijing likely values Syria for its location at the heart of the Middle East as well as its strategic positioning on the eastern Mediterranean, an area of growing geostrategic import,” said Dr Yacoubian.
“In the event that Syria manages to restore its stability and societal health, it has the potential to reprise its historical role as a pivotal player in the Arab world,” Camille Otrakji, a Syria specialist, told TNA.
“Syria’s influence extends to crucial issues such as Iran’s presence in the Arab world, Turkey's role, regional Kurdish aspirations, the dynamics in Lebanon and Iraq, counterterrorism efforts, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. If China is genuinely committed to fostering a multipolar global order, it may well discover a valuable ally in Syria,” he explained.
There are also wider geopolitical dimensions concerning Beijing’s tensions with Washington at play.
"As the US and China deepen their trade war, China will want to help this ‘Shia Crescent’ region [which is made up of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran] prosper and integrate into the regional economy. By doing so, it may also encourage Saudi Arabia and the UAE to continue down their path of building good relations, trading networks, and defence agreements with China,” Dr Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told TNA.
Assad going to China was part of a larger effort to shore up the image and international standing of the Syrian government. Similar to his Iranian and Venezuelan counterparts who went to Beijing earlier this year, Assad’s meeting with Xi in China sent a message out that despite the West’s quest to isolate the Damascus regime to the maximum extent possible, Assad’s government is not isolated in the East, which is where Syria fits geopolitically.
“Assad always insisted that he is following the ‘China model,’ at least before the uprising, meaning that he wanted to modernise and reform economically but not politically,” Dr Landis told TNA. “Like Iran, Syria is looking to the East, and particularly China, to help it out of its diplomatic isolation and economic collapse,” he added.
“The Syrian dictator will gain symbolically by flaunting the trappings of a presidential visit and his meeting with Chinese leader Xi,” said Dr Yacoubian. “He will no doubt exploit the visit to challenge the image of an isolated leader and will seek to portray himself as rehabilitated, at least to the Global South.”
While the symbolism of Assad visiting is significant, it is less than clear how much of an economic relationship Syria can build up with China.
"The response from Washington could play a pivotal role in determining the extent to which China expands its role in Syria"
Although Washington’s stringent sanctions, specifically the Caesar Act, have contributed to China’s decision to stay out of Syria’s reconstruction and redevelopment, it is possible that Beijing will be more willing to undermine the West’s financial warfare against Syria.
This will likely depend on how competition between the US and China plays out in the upcoming period.
“China has the capacity to break US sanctions, if it has the will,” Dr Landis told TNA. “In the past, China has gone along with US sanctions on Iran and Syria, but as the US turns China into an enemy and disengages from China economically, China will begin to push back by engaging with both Iran and Syria to build its own trading block and to undermine US power in the Middle East.”
Regardless of the extent to which China’s rhetoric about helping Syria rebuild turns into concrete action, there is every reason to bet that Damascus will continue viewing Beijing as a critical partner throughout the future.
Assad’s government will fully welcome China’s efforts to gain greater clout in the Middle East while building on the 10 March Saudi-Iranian normalisation agreement and filling voids left by Washington’s declining influence.
“The signals from [Assad’s] visit indicate that China has opted to enhance its involvement in Syria, albeit cautiously. The response from Washington could play a pivotal role in determining the extent to which China expands its role in Syria,” explained Otrakji.
“China is the world’s second-largest economy, it is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it seems inexorably headed for superpower status, and it is increasingly interested in Middle East diplomacy,” said Lund.
“Xi might not give Assad all he wants, or even much at all, but he’s not an international partner that the Syrian president can afford to ignore.”
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.
Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero