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Assad ‘looking for handouts’ on rare trip to China

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited China for the first time in nearly 20 years this week, deepening ties between the two countries in the hopes of increased financial support that may not be forthcoming.

25 September 2023

BEIRUT — A procession of jubilant dancers greeted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday, as he stepped out of an airplane onto a red carpet in China’s eastern economic and e-commerce hub of Hangzhou. 

The visit is Assad’s first to China in nearly 20 years—one that China’s foreign ministry said would take ties between the two countries to a “new level.” On Friday, the Syrian president met his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, on the sidelines of the Asian Games, where President Xi announced the establishment of a “China-Syria strategic partnership,” calling it “an important milestone in the history of bilateral relations.”

Beyond closer diplomatic ties, the Syrian president hopes to rake in financial support, with the country’s economy in ruins after more than a decade of war. “It’s a begging trip on the part of the Assad regime, a move of desperation,” Steven Heydemann, a political scientist specialized in Syria, told Syria Direct.

Assad was welcomed back into the Arab League this past spring, after 12 years of isolation. But Syria’s Arab neighbors—such as Jordan—have since grown tired of waiting for him to act on a reciprocal roadmap drawn up for normalization, including reducing the flow of drugs out of the country. This month, the Arab Ministerial Contact Committee on Syria froze its meetings until further notice.

So Assad has turned to China, which, far from the influence of Syria’s multi-million-dollar drug trade, has not made demands Assad is unwilling to fulfill.

The president’s longtime backers, Russia and Iran, are facing their own set of domestic concerns and objectives close to home, noted Jesse Marks, a non-resident fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Center. “China is a kind of lifeline, a last resort,” Marks told Syria Direct.

Following his Friday meeting with Xi, Assad is scheduled to trek to Beijing, accompanied by Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad, Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade Mohammed Samer al-Khalil, his presidential advisor and Syria’s ambassador to China.

Absent from the delegation are business representatives, such as those from Syria’s Chamber of Commerce, Heydemann noted, in an indication that Assad will likely leave China with little more than promises.

“Assad is looking for handouts,” Heydemann said. “I suspect he’ll go home empty handed”.

 China’s ‘playing card’

For China, Assad’s visit is largely a symbolic move, part of its vision to serve as a more proactive and assertive leader in the Middle East and act as a counterbalance to the influence of the United States (US). 

“The Syrian regime adds one card to the list of cards China can always wave in the face of the West in their geopolitical games,” Syrian political economist Karam Shaar told Syria Direct. Just as the US uses Taiwan’s contentious political status to put pressure on China, he added, China can pressure the West with its ability to block any chances of a political settlement in Syria.

The recent visit has to be seen “in the framework of US-China competition,” Marks said, adding that, “it’s better considered as a reputational booster, rather than a tactical or strategic meeting.”

 Over the past year, China has transformed itself as a peace broker in the region—a role the US has historically sought to fill. In March, China brokered a rapprochement between longtime rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. A month later, Beijing said it was ready to facilitate peace talks between Israel and Palestine. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited China in June.

 “China wants to be seen as the main leader, the great power with the responsibility to help solve the region’s conflicts,” Marks added.

The China-Syria visit has also come on the heels of the announcement of a US-backed project to build a transport network linking India with the Middle East and Europe via Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan, and Israel—a plan that presents new and direct competition to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Syrian-Swiss researcher Joseph Daher told Syria Direct.

Syria officially joined the BRI in 2022, lured by projects that could help the country rebuild its devastated infrastructure, which is estimated to cost over $250 billion, according to UN figures. Beijing has long had its eyes on Syria’s port cities of Tartus and Latakia, which could provide prime access to the Mediterranean and Europe, opening a useful passageway for the BRI. 

In 2018, China gave around 800 power generators to Latakia, as part of its investment to rehabilitate the port city. But outside of relatively minor investments, most of China’s promises for BRI investment projects have failed to materialize, Marks noted. 

This is a similar story to that of other Levant countries, like Jordan and Lebanon, where once-promised Chinese BRI funds have largely “dried up” as China invests in more sustainable economies with higher economic returns, such as Gulf states, Marks said.  

“For China, investment in Syria is not a priority,” Daher said. 

Long-term partners 

The Chinese-Syrian relationship is far older than Syria’s entrance into the BRI. Syria was one of the first countries in the Middle East to recognize the Chinese Communist Party in 1956. And after the Cold War, Syria moved closer to Russia, North Korea and China as US military might enveloped much of the region, according to an Operations and Policy Center paper co-authored by Shaar. 

But Syria’s relationship with China really began to blossom after Bashar al-Assad’s succession to power in 2000, the paper notes. In 2004—during another period of diplomatic isolation—Assad paid a visit to Beijing and met with the Chinese premier at the time, Hu Jintao, the Syrian president’s only official visit, until now.

During the visit, the two sides founded the Syrian-Chinese Business Council, which underscored cooperation in science, agriculture, communications, and petroleum and set the stage for Sino-Syrian trade ties to grow. 

Before the 2011 uprising in Syria, the Chinese telecom giants ZTE and Huawei, had contracted projects in Syria, and Chinese vehicle sales exceeded 10,000 sales each year. China was one of the largest investors in Syria’s oil sector, with three Chinese state-owned companies investing a combined $3 billion.

During the war, Beijing stood quietly behind Damascus, joining forces with Moscow to form a “unified voting bloc” within the UN security council (UNSC), mostly in support of the Syrian regime. This was triggered by the UNSC vote authorizing military action against Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, which both China and Russia saw as a dangerous precedent that could be used against any government dealing with domestic unrest. The two countries spent the next decade ensuring this would not happen to the Assad regime.

China has exercised its veto power on 10 UNSC resolutions related to Syria — a “stark contrast” to its veto of only six resolutions on other matters throughout more than 50 years on the council, Shaar recently tweeted.

Beijing also wanted to make sure it had the regime’s back to help it keep a close watch on members of China’s Turkic Muslim minority, the Uighurs, some of whom fled to Syria during the war and took up arms against the Assad regime.

While many of China’s risk-averse companies shied away from Syria at the start of the war, as cities were eventually recaptured by the regime, business delegations began to trickle back in to see where investments could be made, Marks said. 

In 2017, Chinese companies committed to reconstruction contracts worth a total of $2 billion. However, like other promises of Chinese investment, most of these contracts have yet to materialize.

“The money is there,” Marks said. “It’s just a question of when the green light will come to give it.”

Investment potential

Although China still reigns as Syria’s largest trading partner, for Beijing, the trade volume is miniscule compared to its massive deals with other regional partners, notably Saudi Arabia and Iran.

While Syria’s imports from China did fall after the uprising, they were not as heavily affected as imports from some other countries. Beijing’s affordable products have become increasingly essential as more Syrians fall into poverty.

In 2021, China exported $482 million to Syria, with the largest export being rice. That same year, Syria only exported a meager $1.2 million to China, a minimal sum for the economic powerhouse. 

Many potential investment opportunities for China in Syria are already reserved for Iran and Russia, Marks noted. Still, “as gaps and opportunities for reconstruction become available, Chinese companies can move in,” he said. 

Opportunities could appear in infrastructure, notably railroad development, highway construction, and the expansion of Syria’s ports and airports, Shaar noted, as well as the energy sector. Although most of the country’s oil resources are now under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), there are still enough projects within regime-controlled areas “that make sense from a feasibility point of view for China to invest in.” 

In June, the state-owned China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation (Sinopec) appointed a new director for its Syria branch, sparking rumors Beijing might be ready to restart work in the sector after a decade of suspended activities, according to al-Arab, a pan-Arab newspaper based in the United Kingdom. 

Other potentially promising sectors could be in telecommunications and large-scale manufacturing, including the automobile industry, noted Marks. Chinese car brands, such as Geely and Changan, have already partnered with Mallouk & Company to assemble models for Syria’s domestic market at its car manufacturing plant in Homs.

However, Syria’s unstable environment means Assad may have a long way to go before he can get anything significant from China. 

“China is concerned about the possibilities for return on its investments in Syria,” Heydemann said. Accordingly, Beijing “has shown no indication that it’s prepared to make commitments on a scale that would prepare it to become a significant participant in reconstruction”.

More substantial investment agreements could be signed during China’s BRI conference next month, marking the initiative’s 10th anniversary. Syria is likely to take part in the gathering.

Shaar remains unconvinced. “I doubt China will invest in such a weak regime that’s incompetent and unable to regain control over the whole of the country, or even gain the trust of its neighboring states,” he concluded. 

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