Does China’s Silk Road lead to Damascus?

Does China’s Silk Road lead to Damascus?

The People’s Republic of China continues to expand its influence in the Middle East. Syria’s long term bilateral ties with China brings about questions on how China’s ambitions might play out both during and after Syria’s Civil War.

Could China’s new Silk Road lead to Damascus? China is pursuing its Silk Road Economic Belt as the land-based component of the One Belt, One Road development strategy. With plans for China’s future economic development in the Middle East well underway, the Syrian crisis will prove to be a difficult situation for Beijing to navigate.

Despite the ongoing civil war in Syria, China may have opportunities to expand its influence and economic clout in the war torn country. As a friendly, authoritarian country, Syria may be China’s next stepping stone in the Middle East.

Beijing has a track record of long term involvement in infrastructure development and business partnerships in post-conflict or politically unstable environments. As a key financial donor of Sudan, China was a key facilitator of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between North and South Sudan. Beijing is highly experienced as a prime operator in the business and development scene in both Zimbabwe and South Sudan. This type of economic involvement led China to further protect its investment with the deployment of peacekeeping forces in South Sudan in 2015. Zimbabwe turned towards the yuan as part of its “Look East” scheme.

With China’s construction sector now making huge inroads into Europe, there is a potential pathway for Beijing to meet Syria’s astronomical need for rebuilding when the war finally draws to an end.

China, Syria, and the region

In the past few years, China has increased ties with Iraq, Egypt, and the Arab Gulf States. Last May, China and the Gulf countries took part in a conference in Doha to talk energy, infrastructure, and the future of China’s political role in the region.

China has already heavily invested in Syria’s neighbor, Jordan. Last September at the 2015 China-Arab States Expo in Yinchuan, the Hashemite Kingdom signed over $7B in multiple agreements including transportation, energy development, and telecommunications.

However, attempts by China to increase security arrangements with Syria have run into trouble. Over the last few decades, the United States continuously monitors and pressures China from selling high-grade weapons systems to the Syrian government. The U.S. Department of Commerce recently subpoenaed the Chinese multinational telecommunications company, Huawei Technologies, over alleged export controls violations to Syria and other countries.

China’s China North Industries Group Corp (Norinco) also allegedly sold chlorine gas that was used in attacks against civilians. In April 2015, the Syrian government stated it would return Highly Enriched Uranium from its Dar al-Hajar Nuclear Research Center outside of Damascus back to China.

Syrian-Chinese diplomacy and opportunities

In early June, China appointed a special envoy to Syria, Xie Xiaoyan, who served with some of China’s other regional partners, including Iran and Ethiopia.

But what role could China play in ending Syria’s ongoing crisis? From the start of the Syrian crisis, China has sought to prevent any kind of Western led strike against the Assad government. As relations between Syria and the United States deteriorated, Damascus reassigned its ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, to Beijing.

Speculation that China would take on a military mission on the side of the Assad government has repeatedly failed to materialize. However, Assad’s close advisor, Bouthaina Shaaban, has worked to maintain and strengthen bilateral ties with Beijing since the Syrian crisis erupted. Chinese representatives consistently attend the on-and-off peace talks in Vienna.

Syria’s diplomatic gambit might be paying off. Last December, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem made an official visit to China and Beijing offered to host talks between the Assad government and the opposition. However, China has regulated itself to holding discussions only with Syrian opposition figures located outside of Syria who have little influence with the various rebel factions on the ground.

Chinese humanitarian aid to Syrians is relatively light compared to the U.S., at only $6.17M. For comparison, Beijing’s aid to Africa during the Ebola crisis was $110M.

There is a whole cadre of wealthy Syrian exiles waiting to return to Syria for reconstruction. Many are planning not to repeat the corruption and mistakes made from the aftermath of Lebanon’s conflict. As Syrians of all political stripes discuss and plan for a post-war future, China could be well positioned to benefit from lucrative reconstruction contracts with the Syrian government.

Inside the Syrian regime, mid-level government officials are expressing confidence in the Syrian Pound and optimism for the new Syrian constitution drafted by Russia.

With the lifting of sanctions against Iran, China could easily pursue business opportunities with Syria’s closest ally. Iran could act as a facilitator and a gateway for China to partake in rebuilding and investing in a post-war Syria. Assad himself indicated he would give preferential treatment to the countries that sided with the Syrian government during the course of the conflict.

Reasons for Chinese caution

While China could benefit greatly from a post-war environment in Syria; there are four main reasons for Beijing to proceed with caution. First and foremost is the security situation; even in the event of a total regime victory, there will be a prolonged security threat from Islamic State remnants or the plethora of surviving jihadist groups.

Ahrar al-Sham, the largest faction of a Sunni Islamist alliance, could target Chinese interest during the rebuilding effort if the group fails to achieve any kind of political stake in a new Syria. Most worryingly for China, the Islamic State is known to include jihadist elements from China’s Xinjiang region. Second is the overall political weakening of the regime. China would also have to balance its ties with the Assad government and the emerging power of Syria’s Kurds after the war. Though China almost always shies away from supporting separatist movements, the Chinese people have shown support for the Kurds in their fight against IS. Images of Chinese volunteers fighting alongside the Syrian Kurds have appeared on social media.

China could proceed without formally recognizing Kurdish independence. China already has invested in Iraqi Kurdistan and Chinese workers are stationed there. In 2009, China’s state oil company, Sinopec Group, bought out Addax Petroleum, which operated in the Taq Taq oil fields in northern Iraq. It is no secret that Russia has been fostering ties with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance. China could replicate this strategy and pursue its own avenue of direct ties with Syria’s Kurds.

Third is the notion of Assad’s future. Despite the renewed confidence from Russia’s game-changing involvement in the Syrian conflict, it is still unlikely the regime will be able to reestablish control over all of Syria. A change in the U.S. Administration could take on a hard line towards the Assad government and the conflict could drag on for quite some time.

Fourth and finally, Beijing would also have to placate and maintain its relationship with the GCC, where trade with Beijing is expected to be close to $350 billion in the next ten years. Beijing’s trade with the GCC is already four times that of Iran and also includes the maritime link as part of the wider One Belt, One Road initiative. The GCC is adamantly opposed to any future Syrian agreement with Assad still in power. China’s Silk Road may certainly lead to Damascus, but the question is, who will be there to welcome Beijing through the city gates?

About Author

Chris Solomon

Chris Solomon is a Middle East Analyst and works for a U.S. defense consultancy in the Washington DC Metro Area. He has presented at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, on the U.S. strategy to combat ISIL. Chris’ writing has also appeared on NATO's Atlantic Treaty Association, Raddington Report, Small Wars Journal, and Syria Comment. He holds an MA in International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). You can follow Chris on Twitter @Solomon_Chris