‘China has a lot to gain by supporting Assad in a post-war Syria’: A conversation with Stimson Center researcher Logan Pauley

For 60 years, successive Chinese governments have stood doggedly by an official policy of “nonintervention” in the internal affairs of other states.

And yet an August 1 report in Syria’s pro-government Al-Watan newspaper claimed that China’s ambassador to Syria had made Damascus an offer of military aid for an imminent offensive to retake northwestern rebel-held Idlib province. Between 500 and 3,000 Uighurs, a Chinese Muslim minority group, are estimated to be fighting alongside Islamist militias there, as members of the the majority-Uighur Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). China sees Uighur militants as a potent threat.  

Chinese state media recanted the statement a week later, brushing it off as a simple miscommunication.

However, the affair has placed a spotlight back on China’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, at a time when fighting is winding down in several areas and Assad’s government is reasserting control over much of the country.

While China has carefully skirted the line between diplomatic assistance and explicit military involvement in the conflict, President Xi Jinping’s government has hardly been a neutral actor. Beijing has maneuvered alongside Moscow to veto United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions against the Syrian government and issued public statements of support for Assad. 

The price tag for Syria’s reconstruction has been estimated at a staggering $250 billion, equivalent to about 20 percent of Russia’s entire annual GDP in 2016. With crushing economic sanctions cutting off access to capital for Syrian government officials and Washington’s No Assistance for Assad Act threatening to strangle American funds for reconstruction in areas under the authority of Damascus, it is unclear where money for such a monumental effort might originate.

Meanwhile, speculation is growing that China may be positioning itself to fill the gap, with visits from Chinese business delegations picking up in recent months amid discussions of infrastructure investment plans originating from Beijing. China has, over the course of the conflict, become the nation’s largest trading partner, now snapping up 80 percent of Syrian exports.

“China has benefited a lot from [its] consistency,” says Logan Pauley, a Scoville Fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington, who has been researching Chinese-US relations through the prism of Syria.

In a wide-ranging conversation about China’s foreign policy objectives in Syria, Pauley tells Syria Direct’s Barrett Limoges that the government of Xi Jinping has big plans there.

While Russia’s military intervention has salvaged the teetering government, he believes China now stands to seize a central role in the economic future of the battered, post-war nation.

“When there is a space open or a gap to fill—financially or influence-wise—that’s when China strikes. So, Syria didn’t really present a lot of benefit to China until it became an international crisis in which China could be the bringer of economic peace.”

Q: Even though it was later retracted, was the August 1 statement really a genuine reflection of the Xi Jinping government’s willingness to join a looming Idlib campaign? And how do you interpret the apparent retraction?

There is an [impression] that the Syrian government wants to give off to the international community, believing it would garner support for the Assad regime if China were to back them, so they have a significant amount to gain if they can show that China is on their side.

[It’s likely] that a conversation happened between Chinese and Syrian military officials about China’s changing role in military affairs, especially going into the upcoming Idlib campaign. But I think the way China framed it was not as a direct proactive engagement. China is probably looking at indirect measures to be involved in the conflict—using counterterrorism as a pretext to ‘defend’ its own domestic affairs in other countries. That stems from the flight of Uighur separatists that are trained by the Turkistan Islamic Party [TIP] of Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham [HTS], going from Turkey into Syria, or vice versa. They are afraid of [militants] in these countries training Uighurs into radicalized religious ideologues [who] then come back to their homeland.

[Ed.: TIP has previously fought alongside HTS in north and northwestern Syria.]

Q: When did we first see evidence of Uighurs leaving China, headed for the frontlines in Syria? And was that initially to join Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State or the Turkistan Islamic Party?

It was initially to join ETIP, the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Party. The first real response by the Chinese government to fears that this was happening comes in 2015-2016, but I imagine that [those movements towards Syria] were probably happening from the onset of conflict. But it was probably around early 2016 when the Chinese begin to actually see this as an existential threat.

Uighur fighters in an apparent propaganda video for the Turkistan Islamic Party around 2015.

Q: That being said, has China taken a proactive response in trying to deter Uighur fighters from leaving the country and streaming into Syria?

I would say, yes. A lot of this comes on the spurs of a social media movement that [began] around mid to late 2017. On Chinese social media, they have the same sort of thing as a Facebook page for organizations, and there was an ETIM-founded Uighur group that had 10,000 followers on Chinese social media. [The page] put out a report saying the day that the Syrian war ends is the day the Chinese government has most feared. I think that this was a threat [by] Uighur militants, which the Chinese government was always afraid of. But seeing it as a clear and viral [challenge], given their lack of engagement, caused them to start responding.

Q: How would you describe the relative successes of Chinese and American foreign policy related to the Syrian conflict?  

I think that the underlying problem first stems from a lack of clear and consistent [US] foreign policy goals during the war—especially in regards to the way the US has sought engagement as a countermeasure to Russia and the Assad regime.

At the same time, I think that China has benefited a lot from their consistency. They said the same thing in Libya, they said the same thing in Darfur, they are saying the same thing now in the Central African Republic and South Sudan: as long as a [state has a leader], the borders are seen as secure and the state is sovereign, then there is no reason that they should be directly involved. They are going to be indirectly involved in terms of information exchange, or military-to-military exchange, or training personnel or giving arms, but none of those are directly putting troops on the ground fighting in the front lines.

Uighur fighter in an apparent propaganda video for the Turkistan Islamic Party around 2015.

Q: Do you see Chinese and Russian policy in general alignment, in terms of sharing influence and a post-war economic role in the rebuilding of Syria?

I think that they have different goals. Russia will be seen as the security protectorate that ensures security and safety. And China wants to be somewhat involved in that. But more so, China wants to be seen as the economic and welfare provider. They’re both comfortable being essentialized and prioritized in those capacities, because they know their place. Russia doesn’t have the money to rebuild Syria. The World Bank says that rebuilding Syria is going to cost about $250 billion. And new estimates are saying past $300 billion. China has really only scratched the surface of that number [with what they are offering], but it is willing to start jumping into that realm.

In terms of alignment, there are a lot of joint ventures that China is seeking with Syria that don’t include any other major power. Specifically, building an oil pipeline that connects Tripoli [Libya] to the Lebanese-Syrian border. That is a goal that China has, and it will be funded primary by the Export-Import Bank of China and the China National Petroleum Corporation. They won’t look to work with Novatac or GasProm, or any of these massive Russian companies.

I think Russia knows that it’s going to lose some of these financial deals, given China’s take. But it also knows that China would probably be willing to include Russia on some of them—whereas other states, like the US, will sort of be left at bay.

Q: What does China stand to gain by investing economically in Syria?

China has a lot to gain by supporting the Assad regime in a post-war Syria, in terms of reconstruction deals and financial joint ventures, and most importantly the idea that China might be able to garner some level of control over a port in Tartus that might connect into other projects. Turkey is a very important hub in China’s Belt and Road Initiative [a proposed $8 trillion Chinese plan to expand trade and infrastructure development through central Asia]. Similar to having access to the Mediterranean Sea, it’s a more direct route going through Tartus than going through Turkey or going through other ports in the Mediterranean. So there is a lot that China has to gain there.

I think the way this all works is that they had burgeoning economic plans for Syria prior to the violence erupting in 2011. But this is very much a Chinese foreign policy goal, that when there is a space open or a gap to fill—financially or influence-wise—that’s when China strikes. So, Syria didn’t really present a lot of benefit to China until it became an international crisis, in which China could be the bringers of economic peace, and help to support the prolonged sovereignty of the state. They didn’t start to extend their hand until after the violence started.

Barrett Limoges

Barrett Limoges is an investigative journalist who has reported from across the MENA region, his work appearing previously in Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye, PBS Newshour, Al-Monitor, Huffington Post and other publications. He studied journalism at the University of King's College and is currently pursuing a MA in Political Science at the American University of Beirut.