In China, Syria's Assad gets political fanfare, but no funding commitments

The announcement of the Sino-Syrian strategic partnership last week, the second most comprehensive diplomatic partnership in China’s foreign policy system, sent a political message to the West. It also was a welcome boost to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as his government emerges from isolation on the world stage.

But looking more broadly at Assad’s four-day visit to China — the first since 2004 — this new step in Sino-Syrian relations is worth little more than the paper it was written on. What is happening inside the wartorn Middle Eastern country tells a different story: the announcement comes as anti-government protests in Suwayda enter their second month. Thousands have taken to the streets in defiance of Damascus and calling for Assad to resign, echoes of protests that rocked Syria in 2011.

Furthermore, there have been no Chinese-funded projects announced since Syria joined the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in January 2022, indicating Beijing does not see Syria as a safe place yet to invest in.

Syria is far from an ideal diplomatic or economic partner. However, what it lacks in stability and returns on investment, it makes up for in desperation caused by its economic isolation and enthusiasm for closer relations with China. Nonetheless, without political stability, sustainable economic recovery and development are unlikely. Ongoing political unrest emanating from Damascus’ reliance on the drug Captagon’s trade and disobedient militias, which violate so-called reconciliation agreements that already limit citizens’ rights, as well as Syria’s division between external powers, will likely prove this strategic partnership to be little more than a notional upgrade to Syria’s relations with China.

Syria, an unstable partner with potential

With 12 years of catastrophic conflict having killed around 250,000 civilians, disappeared over 150,000 more, displaced 14 million, caused $400 billion in destruction and isolated Syria from Western economic actors, the Syrian leader is eager to find donors and investors for its reconstruction program, especially ones that do not impose political conditions. Funds from the West for reconstruction have been limited, and the United States has imposed sanctions on those who do business with the Assad. Furthermore, a stated precondition for such funds is the establishment of a transitional government wherein Assad steps down. The Syrian government has done and continues to do all in its power to survive.

Russia’s military intervention in Syria, which began in September 2015, assisted the Assad government in its strategy of survival at all costs. In return, it has received advance reconstruction contracts and energy exploration, extraction and production rights tantamount to Russian domination of Syria’s hydrocarbons industry. Iran, which has similarly bolstered Assad, has been awarded significant control over key Syrian industries such as telecommunications.

Western sanctions have largely been ineffective at deterring or inhibiting already sanctioned entities likes Neftegaz and Evro Polis, an energy company owned by the late Wagner chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, from benefiting from Syria’s deserted economic arena. Nonetheless, neither Russia nor Iran has the economic resources to foot the bill for Syria’s reconstruction, without which Moscow and Tehran cannot expect any returns on their investment.

Enter China. Russia and Syria have long been courting Beijing to invest in Syria’s reconstruction given that this would facilitate the rehabilitation and stability of industries they now control. Since 2017, China has dangled the carrot of investment before Syria, inviting it to join its BRI. Since then, Syrian state media SANA has consistently asserted the Assad government’s support for Beijing and praised its promise of closer cooperation and economic engagement, claiming that greater cooperation with the BRICS group of major emerging economies resists Western imperialism and the weaponization of human rights.

While Syria did join the BRI in January 2022, there have been no discernible infrastructure projects there thus far. Similarly, the announcement of the strategic partnership likely reflects China’s openness to helping Syria in its reconstruction, but only if and when it deems its investment safe and worthwhile. This could indeed defeat the point of Syria, Russia and Iran’s courtship of Chinese involvement in Syria’s reconstruction; China wants to support Assad, but it is his mortgaged authority to sub-state and external actors, repressive governance, criminality and economic mismanagement that make Syria and its economy volatile. Furthermore, Chinese investment at this time would sustain these issues.

A strategic partnership without commitment?

In this context, China and Syria elevated their relationship to that of strategic partnership, during a Sept. 22 meeting between Syrian President Assad, his wife Asma al-Assad and a high-level Chinese delegation in Hangzhou ahead of the 19th Asian Games. Syria is the latest to join over 10 other regional states to have strategic partnerships or comprehensive strategic partnerships with China. This was Assad’s first trip outside of the Middle East, other than to Russia, since the conflict in Syria began in 2011, and his first visit to China since 2004. At a press conference Xi Jinping stated that “China is willing to continue to work together with Syria … and jointly defend international fairness and justice … resisting foreign interference and unilateral intimidation and preserving national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” despite “an international situation full of instability and uncertainty.” The relationship upgrade sends a political message to the West.

While Beijing has given Assad the diplomatic support since the Syrian conflict began, this trip signifies its rehabilitation beyond its traditional partners and the West Asian and North African region, symbolized by Syria’s return to the Arab League. On Saturday, Assad sat with the president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, a sign that despite the heinous crimes committed under his watch and opposition inside and outside of Syria, Assad is being welcomed back from his international isolation.

However, despite the progress made by Damascus in clawing its way back onto the world stage, there has been no mention of concrete deals or projects funded by China in Syria. In fact, it appears that far from being a partnership founded on commitment, this strategic partnership is merely a potential promise of future cooperation on China’s terms. This is not unusual for China’s relations with regional states. China has invested very little of the $400 billion to Iran promised by their 2021 25-year deal, due in large part to economic volatility in Iran.

With renewed protests in the Druze region of Suwayda now ongoing for over a month and having briefly spread to other parts of Syria (larger demonstrations in Daraa and smaller ones in Aleppo, Deir Ez-Zor, Homs and Jaramana), it is clear that the precarious legitimacy of the Assad government is again being challenged. If the Sino-Syrian strategic partnership is to be worth more than the paper it is written on, Beijing may need to invest more than just words, and perhaps even more capital, to secure investments and returns in Syria.


This blogpost was originally published by Kasia Houghton on 25 September 2023 on Al-Monitor.