By Matija Šerić
Although not over yet, the year 2023 will go down in world history as an important year marked by wars in Ukraine, the Holy Land and Nagorno-Karabakh, the rise of anti-colonialist movements in Africa 2.0, major weather disasters and political instability. When looking at influential world politicians, with the exception of Brazilian President Lula da Silva, who returned from prison to the presidential chair, the biggest political winner in the current year is definitely Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Although the USA, the EU, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE and other countries have been trying to topple the Assad government for a whole decade since 2011, they have failed. Thanks to the fact that the majority of the Syrian people remained loyal and decided to fight with a rifle in hand in the military units of the Syrian Arab Republic, and with the help of Iran and Russia, Assad managed to extinguish the rebellion and emerge as the war winner. The war is not over yet but wheel of fortune is unlikely to turn against the government in Damascus.
The great return of Assad’s Syria to the international scene
Although sometime in 2015-2016 Western politicians repeated daily that “Assad must go” and that this was something that would happen at any moment, it did not happen. Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Angela Merkel left, but not Assad, who endured the international isolation of a large part of the world. If Western politicians had a more developed political intuition, they would choose their words much more carefully.
Many years later, in September 2023, during a visit to the People’s Republic of China, Assad and his wife Asma were given a magnificent welcome in the style of the most distinguished guests – a red carpet, cheering enthusiastic children, bouquets of flowers and warm greetings from the highest Chinese leaders led by President Xi Jinping. The Syrian president was welcomed at the level of the Iranian Ayatollah or the Russian president.
During Assad’s visit to China, the strategic partnership between China and Syria was announced. The trip to China is just the icing on the cake of the Assad government’s diplomatic successes. In May Syria was reinstated as a member of the Arab League and the same month relations with the until recently mortal enemy, Saudi Arabia, were normalized. At the opening of the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou, Assad sat in the ceremonial box where the president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, was also present, which is a sign that despite the isolation of the West, Assad has entered the international scene. The international legitimacy and legality of the government of the Syrian Arab Republic led by Assad has been spectacularly restored. Assad is doing great on the foreign policy front.
A long history of Sino-Syrian ties
When considering the current Sino-Syrian relations, it should be pointed out that the ties between the two nations have been going on for centuries. Since Chinese civilization is several thousand years old, Chinese interests in Syria date back to ancient times. The ancient Chinese Silk Road passed through Central Asia passing through Palmyra and Damascus before turning towards Tire and Antioch (now Lebanon and Turkey). A few traces of this ancient Sino-Syrian cooperation remain – for example, the construction of pagodas still visible in the mosaics of the Great (Umayyad) Mosque in Damascus. After the end of the Cold War, Syria drew closer to Russia, China and North Korea as US influence in the region grew, directed against the Syria ruled by Bashar’s father, Hafiz al-Assad.
Apart from numerous visits to Russia, Assad’s four-day visit to China was his first visit to a foreign country outside the Middle East since the outbreak of war in 2011. It was his second visit to China after a visit in 2004. Even then, Damascus was in political isolation that was broken by an invitation from the then Chinese president Hu Jintao. During that visit, the two countries established the Syrian-Chinese Business Council, which is intended for cooperation in science, agriculture, telecommunications and energy. Before the 2011 war, Chinese telecommunications giants ZTE and Huawei had contracted projects in Syria, and Chinese vehicle sales exceeded 10,000 vehicles each year. China has been one of the largest investors in Syria’s oil sector, with three Chinese state-owned companies investing a combined $3 billion.
On September 22, Xi met with Assad in Hangzhou, who took advantage of his visit to China to attend the opening ceremony of the 19th Asian Games. The meeting between the two presidents was attended by senior Chinese officials: First Secretary of the Secretariat of the Communist Party of China Cai Qi, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, First Vice Premier Ding Xuexiang and State Secretary Shen Yiqin. In addition to the first lady, Assad arrived accompanied by Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad, Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade Mohammed Samer al-Khalil, Syrian Ambassador to China Mohammed Hasanein Khaddam and others.
Xi pointed out that Syria was one of the first Arab countries to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1956 and is one of the countries that supported UN General Assembly Resolution 2758, which restored the People’s Republic of China’s seat on the UN Security Council in 1971. Over the past 67 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations, China-Syria relations have withstood all tests, and the friendship between the two countries has grown stronger. Xi emphasized that the establishment of a strategic partnership between China and Syria will constitute an important milestone. China is ready to work with Syria in promoting the continuous development of strategic partnership.
Xi stressed that China is ready to cooperate with Syria to protect common interests. He said that China supports Syria in opposing external interference, preserving national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, and in carrying out national reconstruction, fighting terrorism and achieving a political solution to the Syrian war. Xi said China is willing to strengthen cooperation with Syria on the New Silk Road, increase trade in agricultural products, and work with Damascus to effectively implement the Global Development Initiative, Global Security Initiative and Global Civilization Initiative, to contribute to regional peace and development.
Assad praised socialism with Chinese characteristics. He emphasized that China always stands on the side of international justice, supports international law and humanitarian efforts, and plays an important and constructive role in the world. He noted that China’s global initiatives aim to help all people achieve development for a prosperous future. Assad congratulated China on its great achievements, thanked the Chinese government for providing support to the Syrian people, and strongly opposed the interference of foreign powers in China’s internal affairs. He emphasized that Syria will perceive the establishment of the Syrian-Chinese strategic partnership as an opportunity to strengthen bilateral and regional cooperation. After the meeting, the two presidents jointly witnessed the signing of several agreements within the framework of the New Silk Road and in the field of economic, technical and other cooperation.
Beijing – an important diplomatic protector of Assad during the Syrian war
During the relentless civil war, China was an important diplomatic protector of Syria. Russia and China have regularly blocked UN Security Council resolutions directed against the Assad government. The Chinese even vetoed UN resolutions ten times (previously, in a period of 50 years, they used the veto only six times!).
These are moves that prove the importance of Syria for China. The Russians and Chinese did not want to repeat the mistake as in the case of Libya in 2011, when the Security Council passed Resolution 1973, which authorized NATO’s intervention against the Gaddafi government. Beijing has condemned foreign military interventions and the occupation of part of Syrian territory without the consent of the Assad government, which are moves by the US, Turkey and Israel. Since the beginning of the war in Syria, the Chinese have encouraged negotiations and agreements between the warring parties. However, until a final agreement on the fate of Syria is reached, the government of Bashar al-Assad is legal and legitimate for China.
China views Syria in the context of its long-term Middle East policy. Unlike US officials who focus on short-term achievements that can be sold to voters every two or four years, policymakers in Beijing focus on what can be achieved many years or decades down the line, such as Syria’s role in the New Silk Road initiative. In January 2022, Syria joined the New Silk Road. Once conditions in Syria improve, China hopes to take advantage of its geographical position in the Levant, taking advantage of Syrian ports.
The geographical position of Syria is of strategic importance because it is located in the center of the Middle East on the eastern Mediterranean. If Syria stabilizes as a country, it will become one of the most important countries at the junction of Asia and Africa. In addition, Damascus has a great influence on important geopolitical issues in the region, such as the Kurdish question, relations with Turkey, Iran and Iraq, and can also influence political processes in Lebanon and the Holy Land.
Turning Syria to the East
After 12 long years of terrible civil war, more than 300 thousand civilians were killed, more than 150 thousand disappeared, 14 million were displaced and 400 billion dollars worth of destruction was caused. War-torn Syria needs reconstruction and is isolated from economically powerful Western countries. The USA has imposed sanctions on those political and economic entities that do business with Syria. The Americans condition any Western power on the establishment of a transitional government and the previous resignation of Assad.
Such a scenario is unacceptable for Assad. That is why the Syrian leader decided to find investors from the East for his reconstruction programme. Russia’s military intervention in Syria helped Assad survive in difficult times. In return, the Russian Federation received land reconstruction contracts and concessions to explore and exploit Syria’s natural resources such as oil, gas, iron ore, chrome, manganese, marble. Iran, which similarly supported the Assad government, received significant control over key Syrian sectors such as telecommunications.
Assad’s motivations for visiting China are the same as those that led him to tour the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states earlier in the year when he visited the UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia: to get money to rebuild and strengthen his government’s international legitimacy. Like his Iranian and Venezuelan counterparts, Ebrahim Raisi and Nicolas Maduro who visited China this year, Assad’s visit to China sent a message that despite Western efforts to isolate it, Assad’s Syria is not isolated in the East, where it fits perfectly into the geopolitical landscape that exudes multipolarity. Assad’s visit to China shows his country’s acceptance by the Global South.
Syria’s allegiance to China
In the international arena, Syria has constantly defended China in the issues of Xinjiang, Taiwan and Hong Kong. In the past, Assad’s government has criticized the West for calling out the Chinese government for human rights abuses in Xinjiang, accusing the US and other Western nations of seeking to drive a wedge between Beijing and the Islamic world. In August 2022, the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was quick to condemn the visit of the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, to Taiwan. Damascus condemned the visit as “an act of hostility that is not in accordance with international law and does not respect the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of the People’s Republic of China”.
The large scale of economic problems in Syria is a significant motivating factor for Assad in strengthening relations with Beijing. The Syrian pound fell to record lows, leading to hyperinflation and pushing around 80-90% of the population into poverty. A humanitarian crisis is plaguing the country as Western sanctions continue to choke the Syrian economy. The Syrian political elite lives well, but the majority of the population barely survives, which the government cannot ignore. In addition to international sanctions, Syria has a bad economic situation due to corruption, lack of security, destroyed infrastructure, brain drain and shortages. Because of all this, Syrians want Chinese investments. Assad has always insisted on following the Chinese model of development: economic reforms yes but no political reforms because he wants to preserve the power of his party, the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party.
Recently, new internal problems have appeared. On August 17, street protests broke out against the government in the Druze-majority town of Al-Suwayda in the southwest of the country. The protests grew and by August 20, thousands of protesters were chanting slogans demanding the fall of the Assad government. By August 24, protests had spread to the rest of the country, including cities such as Daraa, Latakia, Tartus, Deir ez-Zor, Al-Hasakah and Homs. On August 25, protests continued to spread to Aleppo and Damascus. This is precisely why a strategic partnership with China is important to Assad, so that reconstruction can begin more seriously and the standard of living can begin to rise. However, the unstable security environment in the country does not favor Chinese investments, which are risky.
China’s big step forward in the Middle East
The strengthening of relations between Beijing and Damascus should be seen in the light of increasingly strong Chinese involvement in the region.
In March of this year, Beijing managed to agree on the normalization of relations between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, who have been at war diplomatically and waged proxy wars in Syria and elsewhere for seven years. However, rationality prevailed. The Saudi-Iranian reconciliation, however declarative rather than practical in nature, is a great success of Chinese diplomacy.
A month later, Beijing said it was ready to facilitate peace talks between Israel and Palestine. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited China in June. It is evident that Chinese influence in the region is growing dramatically. The Chinese want to counter US influence in the Middle East through the New Silk Road initiative, BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and other economic and security projects. BRICS is a direct competitor of the pro-Western G7 group.
On January 1, 2024, four new Middle Eastern countries will join the BRICS: Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt, along with Argentina and Ethiopia. In September this year, at the 6th Sino-Arab trade exhibition in Yinchuan, contracts worth 23.4 billion dollars were signed between China and Arab countries. Representatives of 60 countries, 220 foreign and 150 Chinese companies participated in that exhibition. China has strategic or comprehensive strategic partnerships with a dozen countries in the region.
Chinese interests in Syria
Although Washington’s sanctions contributed to China’s decision not to get more involved in the reconstruction of Syria, it is likely that Beijing will invest more in Syria. That will depend on how the US-China trade war plays out in the future. Although China is Syria’s largest trading partner, for Beijing the volume of trade is modest compared to other regional partners, especially Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Although Syrian imports from China fell after the outbreak of war, they were not as affected as imports from other countries. Cheap Chinese products became increasingly important as more Syrians fell into poverty. During 2021, China exported goods worth 482 million dollars to Syria, and the most exported was rice. In the same year, Syria exported goods worth 1.2 million dollars to China, which is a minimal amount considering the grandiose Syrian potential. The Chinese are interested in investing in Syria’s railways, highways, seaports and airports, oil and gas energy sector.
Beijing is particularly interested in the Syrian port cities of Tartus and Latakia, which would provide the New Silk Road with excellent access to the Mediterranean and Europe. Also, the Chinese could invest in Syrian telecommunications, factory production including the automotive industry. Chinese car brands, Geely and Changan, have already partnered with Jordanian company Mallouk & Company to assemble vehicle models for the Syrian market at a car manufacturing plant in Homs.
An important motive of Chinese-Syrian cooperation is the fight against terrorism. Beijing has its own security interests linked to Syria. The interest of the Chinese is the fight against the so-called Turkistan Islamist parties, Uighur groups located in Idlib. The group was part of the Jaish al-Fatah terrorist community. It is a Uyghur militant separatist organization, which was founded in Pakistan, and is responsible for a series of terrorist attacks in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province, where it wants to establish a caliphate. Militants fought in Syria and Iraq alongside Al-Nusra Front and other radicals including ISIL. They arrived in Syria via Turkey and Central Asia. When the war in Syria broke out in 2011, policymakers in Beijing believed that the Americans would work closely with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to fight terrorism. However, they were disappointed and eventually realized that Bashar al-Assad’s government could be their partner in this regard.
China aspires to build excellent relations with Syria in order to build its own political-economic bloc and undermine the power of the US in the Middle East. As the US-China trade war deepens, China wants to have a strong foothold in the region in the Shiite-majority states of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, but also Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar. China wants to be the conciliator of the two warring poles within the Islamic world.
Damascus will continue to look to Beijing as a key partner. China has the second largest economy in the world, it is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and has an increasingly powerful power in the Middle East, while the US is slowly withdrawing from the region. Although the Americans have worked to reconcile Saudi Arabia and Israel, this is not very likely due to the outbreak of a new Israeli-Palestinian war. On the other hand, China’s power in the region is growing in every way to Syria’s satisfaction.