China- Syria cooperation may be the UN’s last hope for amity in the war-torn country
While taking the oath to officiate to reaffirm his authority as Syria’s President for a further seven years, Bashar al-Assad postulated that he was the only man who could rebuild his country. As the war in most parts of the country attenuates, the perilous condition of the heavily sanctioned economy has come to the forefront. More than a merciless decade of conflict has resulted in 90 per cent of the populace living below the poverty line. Severe economic mismanagement, international dictates, a wrecked industrial sector, and afflictions in neighbouring Lebanon have all added fuel to internal discontent in Syria.
However, amidst the despondency, a flicker of hope could be discerned with the Chinese Foreign Minister’s visit to Syria on July 17. During meetings with President Assad and his Syrian counterpart, he offered Syria to join multi-billion-dollar BRI. Concurrently he proposed a four-point proposal for solving the Syrian crisis at hand. The proposition included preservation of Syria’s sovereignty, prioritisation of the well-being of Syrian people (this comprised unhindered flow of humanitarian aid), a continuation of a firm stance against terrorism, and an inclusive and reconciliatory political solution in line with the UN’s ‘Syrian-led, Syrian-owned’ principle.
Chinese inroads into the Middle East have been growing steadily extending from shares in oilfields to investment in critical infrastructure. Throughout the Syrian civil war, China has always maintained a low profile albeit maintaining a cautious and consistent approach. Its votes at the UNSC have always been a reaffirmation of the aforementioned four-point proposal. Over the years, China has made ventures in Syria, examples of which include a $2 billion industrial park, several cooperation agreements on trade, and shares in two of Syria’s largest oil enterprises — the Syrian Oil Company and Al-Furat Petroleum. Huawei has also avowed to revitalise Syria’s nationwide telecoms network.
For Syria, inclusion in the BRI portends numerous benefits. Therefore, the question is: what are the gains for China?
Firstly, Syria represents a passage to the Mediterranean which is a recourse to the Suez Canal. Chinese investments in eastern Mediterranean ports are aimed at reviving the significant Eurasian commercial routes which link China to Europe, Africa, and beyond. Undoubtedly, the inclusion of the Tartus seaport would fortify China’s position in the Levant.
Secondly, Syria is advantageously located at the junction of oil and gas pipelines that not only link resource fields in the Arabian Peninsula, Persian Gulf, and Iran with European markets but on a wider scale is at the crossroads of Africa, Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. This fact was accentuated by Assad himself in 2009 when he proposed a ‘four seas’ initiative in the hope of creating a unified economic bloc comprising Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran — the Mediterranean Sea, Caspian Sea, Black Sea, and the Persian Gulf. With Syria’s inclusion in the BRI, China will be placed to regenerate this initiative besides having an easier access to the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula.
Furthermore, July 17 also marked a year to additional sanctions imposed by the US on Syria in the form of imposition of the Caesar Act which entails that third-party entities connected to the Syrian regime will be subjected to sanctions as well. The enactment is an obvious ticker to another China-US altercation in the Middle East.
All in all, only if China’s four-point proposal is implemented, Syria’s inclusion in the BRI might become a reality since it will automatically ensure stability in Syria.
Safe to say that apart from being a win-win situation, China- Syria cooperation may be the UN’s last hope for amity in the war-torn country, and an answer to the Syrian populace’s cry for help.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 7th, 2021.