Why China won’t rebuild Syria
Author: Samy Akil, ANU and OPC
A decade since the start of the Syrian civil war, the debate on the conflict has turned towards the reconstruction of the country. China is increasingly being touted as a leading candidate to tackle post-conflict reconstruction in Syria at a time when Western powers and allies of Assad’s Syrian regime appear either reluctant or unable to resolve the issue.
The European Union, the United States and other Western powers have ruled out investing in Syria as long as the Assad regime remains in power. The Biden administration has suggested that Syria will not be a foreign policy priority for Washington. And none of Syria’s major donors, Russia and Iran, are in a position to lead any serious reconstruction initiative.
Iran’s economy has been weakened by the combination COVID-19 and international sanctions, limiting its ability to disburse for the Syria reconstruction bill. With its GDP estimated at Contract by at least 4.5% over 2020-2021, the ramifications of Iran’s economic fallout are expected to last into the future. Russian state coffers also remain depleted as country battles deep recession exacerbated by Western sanctions and the pandemic.
China, on the other hand, has managed the pandemic successfully and strengthens its economy. that of China was the only big economy register economic growth during the pandemic, expansion by 2.3% in 2020 and increase until 2021.
UN estimates in 2020, Syria’s economic losses from the war amounted to over US $ 442 billion, with at least US $ 117.7 billion in physical assets destroyed. The have been suggestions that Beijing may seek to elevate Syria’s place in its ambitious Belt and Road initiative, citing to access to the Mediterranean and the lucrative potential of various reconstruction projects. Some note that Beijing growth role in the Middle East will eventually encompass Syria and, by extension, its infrastructure needs.
China has repeatedly expressed interest in investing in the process of rebuilding Syria. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared in 2017, that “it is only by steadily advancing reconstruction that we can give hope to the Syrian people and guarantee long-term peace and stability in Syria”. Chinese President Xi Jinping reaffirmed this notion two years later, affirming that “China is ready to participate in the reconstruction of Syria”.
But expressions of interest differ from concrete measures. Apart from a small reconstruction promises, peripheral aid donations – including most recently a batch of 150,000 doses of Sinopharm vaccine – and small-scale investments – as in the derisory car industry – Beijing has refrained from showing financial might in Syria due to three major factors.
First, Syria remains fragmented. While the war has effectively turned into a frozen conflict, large-scale military incursions continue, including clashes between the regime’s forces and the Turkish army. The potential for sporadic spillovers and surges is high and may deter any Chinese investor interested in bringing capital to Syria. Sanctions are other deterrents, including the US sponsored program Caesar Law intended for any foreign entity that provides funding or assistance to the Assad regime.
Second, the economic and political situation in Syria is still in sharp decline. Hyperinflation is becoming the norm. The Syrian pound suffers from record depreciation levels. In March 2021, he reached the grim milestone of 4000 pounds for the US dollar on the black market – from 47 pounds to the dollar at the start of the war. No region is spared by soaring commodity prices, food insecurity and fuel shortages. Protests in response calling for the fall of the regime in government-held strongholds, as in Deraa and Suwayda, are more and more frequent. Rumors of a transitional military council have been widely circulated within elite circles. China would not want to invest in a country whose political future is still uncertain and whose economic forecasts are bleak.
Third, China’s perceived security interests far outweigh economic incentives in Syria. Beijing considers rebel-held territories in the north-west of the country as “hotbeds of terror”. He is particularly concerned about the Uyghur fighters who joined the Front al-Nusra (now Hayat Tahrir al-Sham), the Islamic Party of Turkestan and Katibat al-Ghurba al-Turkistan. While the exact number of Uyghur fighters and jihadists is unknown, China’s special envoy to Syria Xie Xiaoyan claimed the number was as high as 5000. Beijing would probably be rather see these fighters killed in action; their capture or repatriation could be considered a potential threat to their national security.
It is an essential pillar of China’s policy in Syria. Beijing regards the Assad regime as the most reliable fighting force to fight Islamist groups on the ground, but the economic incentives to invest under its government are relatively weak. Beijing protected the regime 10 times in the UN Security Council with its veto power and sought to confer legitimacy on Assad – while keeping a distance from the conflict and defend a political solution based on mediation and dialogue.
For any substantial reconstruction effort, Beijing would need a lasting political solution to the conflict. Beijing will have to wait and observe the general peace process, including what the 2021 presidential elections may bring, before taking steps in that direction, but much is unlikely to change.
Samy Akil is Visiting Scholar at the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies, Australian National University and Non-Resident Scholar at the Operations and Policy Center (OPC), Gaziantep, Turkey.
This article is taken from a recent report by Samy Akil and Karam Shaar, The Red Dragon in the Land of Jasmine: An Overview of China’s Role in the Syrian Conflict, available here to the OPC.