Syria is now the eighteenth Arab state to join the ambitious Chinese Belt and Road Initiative
Marking a major boost to Sino-Syrian relations, on 12 January, Syria joined the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s ambitious infrastructure development strategy stretching from East Asia to Europe.
For analysts with an eye on Syria, the development was expected. In November 2021, President Bashar al-Assad discussed his country gaining membership in the BRI with his counterpart in Beijing, Xi Jinping, following high-level meetings between officials of both states in previous months.
The move will likely help Syria deepen its cooperative and economic ties to other countries in the BRI, and enable it to circumvent the effects of harsh US sanctions on the country.
China clearly seeks to bolster the government in Damascus. Over the past decade, and for various reasons enumerated here on The Cradle, conflict-ridden Syria has been a country of increasing interest to Beijing.
Economy and the long game
China’s BRI agenda has been one main point of mutual interest: As Beijing sees it, Syria represents a corridor to the Mediterranean Sea which bypasses the Suez Canal and revives ancient trade routes connecting China to the African and European continents.
The incorporation of coastal Tartus and the capital city of Damascus into the BRI could boost Beijing’s economic footing in the Levant and Mediterranean.
Although nearly 11 years of warfare in Syria have prevented the Chinese from leveraging the Arab state’s geostrategic location to advance Beijing’s BRI, China’s leadership has carefully focused on playing the long game.
Now, in the post-conflict era, with Syria in need of massive reconstruction and infrastructure projects, China’s BRI has been brought into play.
Ancient links and modern opportunities
As a BRI member, Syria will look to further integrate itself economically into West Asia. In desperate need of foreign investment for the process of redevelopment, the Syrian leadership views China as a key investor and partner to rebuild the war-ravaged nation.
Importantly, during this period, China’s good will has grown among Syrians, in large part because of Beijing’s bold initiatives to thwart direct western military intervention at the UN Security Council and other institutions.
It is safe to assume that China will, at least eventually, be able to leverage its popularity among Syrians to take advantage of new economic opportunities in the country’s post-conflict future.
At the ceremony of Syria’s admission into the BRI, held this month in Damascus, Fadi Khalil, who heads Syria’s Planning and International Cooperation Commission, hailed the initiative. He invoked the historic roles of Aleppo and Palmyra in the ancient Silk Road and spoke about the potential for future Sino-Syrian relations within the framework of greater bilateral and multilateral cooperation.
Khalil and Feng Biao, Beijing’s ambassador to Syria, signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Syria’s admission into this Chinese initiative, which other Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, have previously joined at different levels of commitment.
Other recent developments underscore the extent to which Syria and China are deepening their ties. At the start of this year, Beijing aided Syria by sending over more than a million COVID-19 vaccine doses, according to Syrian state-owned media.
Despite the many ways in which Syria sees itself benefitting from membership in the BRI, the West Asian framework for this project will be no bed of roses.
A geographic wrench in the works
For Beijing, it is important that Iraq establish a long-term BRI corridor to both Syria and Jordan. While the BRI route between Iran and Syria – that traverses Iraq – has yet to be agreed upon with Baghdad, the Chinese must have many valid concerns about the security risks of doing business in Syria and Iraq.
China recognizes that “Iraq continues to top the list of high-risk investment destinations” in this grandiose project. Obviously, the same can be said about Syria where ISIS and other extremist militants continue to wage acts of terrorism, notably on the country’s borders with Iraq and Turkey.
With serious issues stemming from terrorism, social unrest, economic woes, and violent political instability, Iraq and Syria are two countries plagued by countless security uncertainties.
Although Chinese firms tend to accept higher levels of security risks than western companies, securing the BRI in Syria’s volatile neighborhood will prove no easy task for Beijing and its West Asian trade partners.
A far more stable and secure BRI economic corridor to Europe would be via northern Iran – a route already secured – then extending directly from Iran into Turkey. Yet the ice-cold state of Ankara-Damascus relations, China’s view of Turkey as an uneasy BRI partner, and NATO pressures on Ankara to avoid Beijing and Tehran, all contribute to practical challenges that will not be easy for the BRI’s financiers to quickly overcome.
But the Sino-Syrian deal this week shows that China is moving forward with its West Asian framework, despite these obstacles. One wonders whether Beijing has reason to believe Iraq’s acquiescence to the BRI is already in the bag. There is little point of developing the Syrian part of the project, without the Iraqi bridge necessary to secure Iran’s connectivity to Syria.
Washington’s reconstruction obstacle: The Caesar Act
On 17 July, 2020, the US began implementing the most sweeping sanctions which Washington has ever imposed on Syria.
Formally known as the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019 (or Caesar Act), the Biden administration continues to target Syria with Trump-era sanctions which pursue entities or individuals worldwide – including third-party actors – conducting business with government-dominated bodies of the Syrian economy, such as gas, oil, construction, engineering, and banking.
When China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Damascus in July 2021, he met with Assad and other high-ranking Syrian government figures.
That visit by Beijing’s top diplomat was an early indication of China’s seriousness about strengthening ties with Syria, despite Washington’s continued imposition of wide-ranging sanctions on the state.
During his visit to Syria, Wang emphasized his government’s staunch opposition to the foreign-backed ‘regime change’ agenda targeting the Assad government. Beijing frames its pro-Assad stance within the context of supporting Syria’s sovereignty as an independent nation-state.
Throughout the past 11 years of warfare in Syria, China has maintained four core beliefs on the conflict: First, that the Syrian people need to reach a political solution; second, that a political transition in Syria is necessary; third, that top priorities include nation-wide reconciliation and unity; and fourth, that the international community has an obligation to help Syria.
The BRI, while initiated and heavily financed by the Chinese, is ultimately a multinational project involving dozens of countries, many of them US-allied, and interconnected with Syria via history, religion, culture, and economy – past and present.
A project this global is unlikely to come to a grinding halt because of a domestic US government ruling on trade formulated thousands of miles away from the activity.
Fighting terrorism in Syria and China
Another issue that has driven the Beijing-Damascus joint agenda in recent years is China’s ‘securitization campaign’ or ‘pacification drive’ in Xinjiang.
Assad’s government has publically condemned western efforts to use the plight of Uighurs for the purpose of creating a wedge between China and Muslim-majority countries.
Syria, like most Arab-Islamic countries, has defended Beijing in the face of the US and other western governments which allege that Chinese authorities are guilty of waging ‘genocide’ in Xinjiang, where about 12 million Uighurs, mostly Muslim, reside.
Mindful of the fact that Uighur jihadists came from Xinjiang to Syria to fight the Syrian government in the ranks of Islamic State and other violent extremist groups, Damascus and Beijing see themselves as having common cause in a struggle against terrorism and extremism.
In 2017, Syria’s ambassador to Beijing said that roughly 5,000 terrorists from Xinjiang were transported, mostly via Turkey, to Syria during the conflict. Chinese authorities have voiced serious concerns about the now battle-hardened and indoctrinated extremists potentially returning to China to carry out acts of terrorism.
Likewise, Beijing rejects the view of western governments that Assad is guilty of serious crimes. China’s leadership believes that the Syrian government deserves praise for its fight against forces which sought to overthrow Assad and his government.
When Wang was in Syria last summer, he said that “the Syrian government’s leading role in fighting terrorism on its soil should be respected, schemes of provoking ethnic divisions under the pretense of countering terrorism should be opposed, and Syria’s sacrifice and contribution to the anti-terror fight should be acknowledged.”
The future of the Sino-Syrian relationship
Currently in the US there is strong support from both sides of Washington’s political aisle for stringent Trump-era US sanctions on Damascus. In fact, this year, Biden’s administration has come under bipartisan pressure to intensify the US government’s enforcement of the Caesar Act.
Given the existing polarization and hostility in West Asian geopolitics, it is difficult to imagine Washington lifting the Caesar Act in the foreseeable future. Ultimately, this means that the US will probably continue to target Syria’s economy with crippling sanctions.
Within this context, Damascus has all the reason in the world to pursue strategies that can help it minimize the harm caused by Washington’s financial warfare.
“China can play an important role in weakening the impact of the Caesar sanctions,” said Dr. Joshua Landis, head of the Middle East department at the University of Oklahoma, in an interview last year with The Cradle.
“In Iran, China has done this,” Landis explained. “Iran’s oil exports, which were devastated by sanctions, have begun to grow again, largely because China is purchasing Iranian oil again. China is the workshop of the world so it can supply most of the goods that Syria needs. China is also strong enough to thumb its nose at US sanctions. As the US increasingly forbids US companies from dealing with Chinese firms, China has greater incentive to punish the US by breaking sanctions on countries like Iran and Syria.”
Now that Syria has joined the BRI, it is safe to conclude that the Chinese will play an increasingly important role in terms of Syria’s strategies for withstanding sanctions imposed by the US.
The odds are good that, as time passes, China and Syria’s geopolitical and geo-economic value to each other will only expand.