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Al-Assad’s Beijing Visit: A Stepping Stone to a Strategic Partnership Between the Two Nations

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The Chinese government is adopting a new diplomatic stance, marked by a bold challenge to American directives. This strategy aims to bolster ties with nations that the U.S. has sought to alienate, with Syria being a prime example.

Recently, Beijing welcomed Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The outcome of this visit was the announcement that their ties had been elevated to a “strategic partnership of resilience.” This status is the pinnacle of China’s diplomatic relationships, and so far, only three countries—Pakistan, Russia, and Belarus—have been granted this distinction. Could Syria be next in line?

For China, their interest in Syria is multifaceted. It’s not just about the country’s economic riches; it’s a geopolitical gamble. In Beijing’s eyes, Damascus stands as an ideological outlier in the Middle East, defined by its unique intellectual and ideological foundations. This, coupled with the nation’s rich cultural diversity and pluralism, makes it all the more appealing.

Syria’s value for China transcends its natural resources. Geographically and civilizationally, its significance and the influential role it plays in Middle Eastern geopolitics make it indispensable.

Despite the ongoing war, China’s relationship with Syria has persisted. However, the depth of their ties hasn’t always mirrored China’s firm stance in the Security Council, where it has wielded its veto power in support of Syria on numerous occasions.

In 2012, China exercised its veto power against a Washington-proposed resolution calling for the withdrawal of all military forces from Syrian cities and towns.

In February 2017, Beijing vetoed a draft resolution that sought to impose sanctions on the Syrian government, accusing it of deploying chemical weapons. Then, in July 2020, Beijing opposed the extension of aid deliveries to Syria via Turkey.

China’s foreign policy towards Syria is shaped by the interplay of interests and ideology. These twin pillars have historically been foundational to China’s external relations and are deeply rooted in Chinese political philosophy.

Syria’s geopolitical and economic significance to China, paired with Beijing’s steadfast stance against meddling in sovereign nations’ internal affairs and its commitment to justice and rights restoration, has allowed China to craft its Syrian foreign policy. This alignment ensures both the safeguarding of national interests and the upholding of principles intrinsic to China’s unique political identity.

China’s stance on the Syrian conflict has always been principle-driven, aligning with its foreign policy ethos which advocates non-interference in the domestic matters of other nations.

Subsequently, Beijing has made concerted efforts to bring an end to the Syrian war, proposing numerous initiatives aimed at resolving the ongoing strife.

Beyond matters of interest and ideology, China’s position on the Syrian conflict is also informed by its aspirations to maintain and bolster its influence within the Middle East’s global power dynamics. As China emerges as a dominant force on the world stage, its evolving foreign policy towards Syria mirrors its ascending stature and influence.

Anyone examining the ties between the two nations will see no clear evidence suggesting their relationship has evolved into what the media frequently labels a “strategic partnership.”

This could be attributed to the deliberate ambiguity and behind-the-scenes diplomacy both countries favored, given their respective circumstances. It’s possible that this approach was more a Chinese preference than a Syrian one.

Particularly since Beijing is careful with its actions, striving not to unnecessarily antagonize the United States while it focuses on its grand strategic endeavor, the Belt and Road Initiative.

While Syria is in dire need of allies during its challenges, it recognizes the interests and circumstances of other nations. It understands that relationships can’t be purely evaluated on a “profit and loss” basis; there’s a strategic depth that heavily influences the decisions of major powers.

China has consistently supported Syria both diplomatically and humanitarianly. It maintained its embassy in Damascus, championed Syria’s interests in the Security Council, and readily provided humanitarian assistance, notably during the Covid-19 pandemic and after the earthquake Syria experienced a few months back.

While the evidence might not strongly suggest that the relationship between the two countries qualifies as a strategic partnership, it’s the unseen dynamics between them that appear to play a significant role in elevating their ties to a “strategic relationship” level.

The deployment of popular diplomacy was evident, with Damascus benefiting from China’s endeavors to amplify its “soft power.” Exchanges of party and economic delegations between the two nations persisted, and there was a notable increase in the number of Syrian students attending Chinese universities, funded by the Chinese government.

Interestingly, direct visits between officials of the two nations were sparse. It appears that the respective embassies served a pivotal role in cultivating and fortifying these ties.

The visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Damascus on the day the results of Syria’s presidential elections were announced on July 17, 2021, wasn’t just serendipitous. He was the first to extend congratulations to President Al-Assad on his electoral triumph.

This visit held immense significance, marking a shift in China’s foreign policy towards challenging Western influence in various global regions. It was the first visit by a high-ranking Chinese official to Syria since 2011, following the onset of the conflict.

Wang’s meeting with President Al-Assad, where he congratulated him on his re-election, was symbolic. Additionally, Chinese President Xi Jinping dispatched a congratulatory message to Al-Assad on his election victory, expressing: “China staunchly supports Syria in safeguarding its national sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity, and will extend as much assistance as possible.”

Following Wang’s visit to Damascus, Beijing advocated for the removal of sanctions on Syria and proposed a four-point initiative to address the crisis. This plan encompassed:

  1. Upholding Syria’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity, allowing the Syrian people the autonomy to determine their nation’s destiny.
  2. Fast-tracking the reconstruction process and immediately lifting all sanctions on Syria, a crucial step to ameliorate the country’s humanitarian crisis.
  3. Combatting terrorist organizations recognized by the UN Security Council.
  4. Championing a comprehensive and conciliatory political resolution to the Syrian conflict, bridging divides with all Syrian opposition groups through dialogue and consultation.

Wang’s trip followed the Syrian government’s successful reclamation of a majority of its territories. This transition signaled a shift towards reconstruction, a phase where Beijing is poised to assume a significant role due to its ample financial and political resources.

Given the intensifying tensions between China and the United States, China found itself drawn into a subtle yet assertive counteraction against the U.S.

Beijing has strategically ventured into regions historically under American influence, notably the Middle East. This move is significant, especially considering China’s traditional reluctance to entangle itself in the complexities and challenges of that region.

For many years, the United States has depicted the issues in the Middle East as “intractable problems,” rooted in religious disputes that span centuries.

China’s success in bolstering Arab-Chinese collaboration, particularly following the Arab-Chinese summit in Riyadh, served as an impetus for several Arab nations to pursue closer ties with Damascus. This renewed rapport culminated in Syria’s reintegration into the League of Arab States. Although the Arab initiative with Damascus seems to be progressing slowly, and at times hesitantly, it hasn’t hit an insurmountable roadblock.

Furthermore, the fruitful outcomes of Chinese mediation in narrowing the differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran, resulting in the re-establishment of diplomatic ties and ambassadorial exchanges, should positively impact Arab-Syrian relationships.

China now navigates the Syrian situation with a sense of ease, steering clear of rivalry with major international players in Syria, notably Iran and Russia.

Amid intensified actions against Damascus, manifested by the deployment of additional American troops to the area and discussions about severing the connection between Syria and Iraq via a corridor from Al-Tanf to Al-Bukamal, the foundation of American intelligence leverages regional factions with specific local allegiances.

This period also saw heightened protests in southern Syria (Suwayda) and skirmishes between the SDF militia and tribal forces in northern and eastern Syria.

Syria’s challenging economic landscape has played a significant role in exacerbating these conflicts, amplifying concerns about their potential spread throughout the country.

The root of these protests can be largely attributed to differing perspectives. The Syrian government views American sanctions as the primary culprit, while many Syrians believe the escalation in corruption, which has surpassed tolerable levels, is burdening the populace.

China’s involvement in the Syrian crisis at this juncture offers robust political backing for Syria and should be complemented by heightened economic support, which Syria urgently requires.

Hosting the Syrian President in Beijing would signify a pivotal moment in the ties between the two nations, underscoring China’s aspiration for a more equitable global order.

The Syrian conflict may have been the catalyst for this shift, and the Ukrainian war further solidified it, making the strategy of international alignments more evident on the global stage.

President al-Assad’s sole visit to Beijing took place in 2004, centering on economic collaboration between both countries.

While development hinges on political and security stability, this shouldn’t deter efforts to address challenges potentially impeding economic collaboration or reconstruction involvement.

It’s beneficial to foster and stimulate dialogues between Syrian and Chinese entrepreneurs, particularly in devising solutions to reconstruction challenges, such as financing. The goal should be to transition from mere economic cooperation to a tangible economic partnership, incorporating road and rail links and connecting energy lines from Iran, China, Iraq, and Syria. This vision, proposed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2002, aimed to transform Syria into a pivotal gas transit hub and a free-trade nexus bridging the East and West by linking the Five Seas. China interpreted this as a rejuvenation of the Silk Road, envisioning a vast economic corridor from Syria to China. This aligns seamlessly with the Belt and Road Initiative introduced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013.

Syria needs to modernize its banking system and could benefit from China’s expertise in this domain, exploring payment mechanisms that aren’t reliant on the US dollar. Strengthening ties between the chambers of commerce, industry, and agriculture and creating joint chambers between the two nations can be valuable, among other cooperative ventures.

There are numerous potential collaboration areas between the two countries that could yield significant outcomes for both if they can navigate bureaucratic hurdles and establish direct communication channels.

Such cooperation may not be well-received by Syria’s adversaries, notably the United States, which is reportedly extracting Syrian oil from the wells it controls, all the while claiming its forces are in the region to combat terrorism, specifically ISIS.

The Chinese media has extensively highlighted this act, deeming it a blatant international theft conducted openly.

China appears to be growing in confidence and is more assertive in demonstrating its global influence, especially given the rising tensions with the United States. This dynamic presents Syria with an opportunity to enhance its ties with Beijing.

Anticipation is building around the forthcoming visit of the Syrian President to Beijing. Current predictions suggest it will mark a significant moment in the relationship between the two nations, potentially reshaping the geopolitical equilibrium in the Middle East and possibly on a global scale.