China's growing role in the regional normalisation of Assad

A tattered poster of Syrian President Bachar al-Assad is seen in the northern town of Ras al-Ain, close to the Turkish border, on November 10, 2012
7 min read
17 November, 2021
Analysis: China's expanding economic influence in the Middle East could provide a boost to regional actors seeking to normalise Assad's regime.

Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is seeking to rebuild his dynasty following elections in May, which were slammed as a “sham”, as acceptance quietly grows for the authoritarian leader among Arab states following a brutal 10-year civil war.

While the United States and European Union refuse to recognise his control over Syria and have therefore ruled out financial investment for the country, and Moscow and Tehran cannot afford to foot the bill for rebuilding Syria, Assad has sought assistance from China and wealthier regional powers.

On 5 November, China’s President Xi Jinping called Assad, fuelling speculation that Beijing may take a greater interest in Syria, and perhaps raising hopes within the cash-strapped Assad regime.

"Over the last decade, China has sought to expand its global economic footprint through its so-called Belt and Road Initiative in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa"

“Xi Jinping pointed out that China firmly supports Syria in safeguarding its national sovereignty, territorial integrity and national dignity, and firmly opposes interference by external forces in Syria's internal affairs,” a statement by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

The statement added that the Chinese President “is confident that Syria will overcome various risks and challenges and achieve new victories in the struggle to defend independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the Syrian people will embrace a better future”.

For his part, Assad said he “attaches great importance to its friendly relations with China, supports the Belt and Road Initiative, hopes to expand and deepen cooperation with China, and welcomes Chinese companies to increase investment in Syria,” the statement added.

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Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed visited Damascus and met President Assad on 9 November. This meeting, in which both sides reportedly discussed strengthening investment partnerships, followed various Emirati overtures to build ties and normalise relations with the Syrian regime in recent weeks and throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

As the United States struggles to prevent, or passively allows, other countries’ engagement with the Syrian regime, China’s growing economic influence in the region would be another boost to regional actors like the UAE in their bid to empower Assad’s regime. Ultimately, it would enable Assad to further consolidate its influence over the country.

Beijing's superficial interests in Syria

Over the last decade, China has sought to expand its global economic footprint through its so-called Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Syria has been seen as a possible location for China to realise such ambitions, as it aims to develop its foreign policy.

Since securing greater military control over Syria, Assad has often welcomed greater Chinese investment and efforts to rebuild the war-torn country. Meanwhile, China has often joined forces with Russia in vetoing United Nations Security Council resolutions against Assad, indicating it prefers the Assad regime and is defying the West.

Despite some speculation that China could take a direct role in reconstructing Syria, experts have cast doubts on Beijing’s willingness to do so.

“Beijing is unlikely to drastically alter its approach to Syria but is instead continuing with its approach of careful hedging,” Lucille Greer, Schwarzman Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, told The New Arab. “Many of the factors that make China cautious about Syria, including instability, corruption and violent extremism, are still in play.”

Assad poster - Getty
Syria's brutal war has killed over half a million people and displaced more than six million. [Getty]

“In the Middle East, China is extremely mindful of what the US does because Washington is the traditional partner of many countries of the region and China prioritises its relationship with the US over its relations with the Middle East,” she added. “For China, the US is definitely more important than Syria.”

After all, the Donald Trump-era Caesar Act entails sanctions on those who do business with Damascus while Assad is in control. Although the UAE has been able to find small loopholes and subtly engage with Assad, the act has largely deterred overt regional cooperation with the Syrian regime, and the threat of sanctions has made China even more hesitant to invest in Syria.

Guy Burton, adjunct professor at the Brussels School of Governance, acknowledges there have been changes in China’s stance towards Syria, but he doesn’t believe “they are significant enough to make the kind of investment and stimulate sufficient economic activity to prove transformative”.

“The World Bank's 2017 estimate for the loss of Syria’s GDP between 2010-16 was $226 billion, which was double the size of its GDP in 2010,” Burton told The New Arab. “That number also goes up every year, so the estimate of rebuilding Syria is now around $250-400 billion.”

"I would see the engagement with the Assad regime by China and the UAE as a geo-strategic and an ideological one. For both Beijing and Abu Dhabi, the Assad regime is a like-minded authoritarian regime"

While it would be costly for China to help rebuild Syria, Beijing may also feel that there would be a limited return on any investment in Syria’s infrastructure, given the economic struggles within the country after a decade of war, and that there would be limited domestic finance going into rebuilding. Indeed, the poverty line in regime-controlled areas has in some cases reached more than 90%. 

“At the same time, the relationship between Assad and the West is antagonistic. So, he's not exactly looking for the West’s assistance, which puts China in a stronger position. But again, that depends a lot on whether Beijing wants to get involved and even if it chose to do so, it's not going to be plain sailing,” Burton added.

A growing regional détente

The UAE is cheerleading a regional wave of normalisation with the Syrian regime. Saudi Arabia has also followed suit in improving ties with Syria, despite being a key backer of the Syrian opposition during the country’s civil war.

Jordan has also urged the United States to allow more freedom to engage with the Assad regime. On 3 October, Jordan’s King Abdullah II called Assad for the first time since 2011, and this followed Jordanian officials urging the US to permit trade between Amman and Damascus.

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Aside from Qatar, which has staunchly opposed normalisation with Assad, a gradual shift in Arab engagement is evidently occurring and raises the prospects of Syria’s return to the Arab League.

Indeed, China’s expanding clout could make regional actors even more willing to engage with Syria in the future. Ultimately, it would be beneficial to Abu Dhabi and Beijing’s fledging regional partnership.

“The UAE has become China’s most trusted partner in integrating Abu Dhabi’s own regional infrastructure and port strategy into the BRI,” Dr Andreas Krieg, Associate Professor at Kings College, London, told The New Arab. “The UAE have been conscious of China’s requirement to control or at least have access to strategic choke points and mostly maritime infrastructure.”

Krieg argued further that cooperation between the UAE and China was indeed a crucial factor in the reconciliation with Assad.

"The UAE has become China's most trusted partner in integrating Abu Dhabi's own regional infrastructure and port strategy into the BRI"

“I would see the engagement with the Assad regime by China and the UAE as a geo-strategic and an ideological one. For both Beijing and Abu Dhabi, the Assad regime is a like-minded authoritarian regime whose sovereignty in dealing with civil society and insurgency domestically must not be violated. The UAE and China also see the Assad regime as the only guarantor of stability in Syria and therefore want to normalise relations with the regime while at the same time offering avenues for the regime to reintegrate into regional organisations.”

“For the UAE that is about building a sustainable long-term footprint in an important Middle Eastern country and supporting networks that it then can offer to its partners in East and West. The speculation in Abu Dhabi is that eventually, the West will normalise relations with the Assad regime, at which point the UAE control the space,” added Krieg.

Clearly, despite currently being shunned by the West, Assad is gaining new partnerships which will likely further enable his normalisation. Yet his regime is merely seen as a useful tool for many regional powers, and with a lack of desire to invest in Syria, this could hamper his efforts to rebuild Syria according to his own wishes.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics, and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey