Why an end to the war in Syria gives China an opportunity to extend its influence

The country’s reconstruction is likely to cost US$400 billion and, with the US and EU frozen out, that opens the door to China

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 October, 2018, 6:30pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 October, 2018, 6:30pm

With reports claiming that Bashar al-Assad’s regime has recaptured more than 90 per cent of Syria and the announcement of a joint Russia-Turkey demilitarisation zone in Idlib – ostensibly neutralising the conflict’s final frontier – it appears as though the war may formally soon end.

And with that comes a need for post-conflict reconstruction, which the World Bank estimates will cost nearly US$400 billion, a sum too big for a single partner.

Recent international trade fairs have demonstrated that myriad non-Western international stakeholders are interested in playing their part while the US and EU have largely been excluded from such discussions.

Despite strong interest from Russia, Lebanon, and Iran, no country has more financial wherewithal to aid Syria’s reconstruction than China.

China is currently seizing this opportunity both to gain access to Syria’s economy and also to cement an advantageous geopolitical relationship for the future.

On September 15, the 60th Damascus International Fair concluded, which saw more than 200 Chinese companies in attendance.

The Damascus fair was the first successful resumption of a previous venue that facilitated foreign direct investment and joint venture deals for external companies wanting to do business within Syria. The fair was meant to have successfully resumed last year, but mortar strikes from rebel forces in Ghouta hit the exhibition hall in 2017, killing a number of attendees.

Because of that, and the persistent US sanctions targeting Syrian and Syrian-allied institutions, neither the US nor any of the EU countries were invited to this year’s fair.

Belt and Road Initiative drives China’s growing mediation role in world conflicts but peace elusive

With little competition present, China pledged to manufacture its own cars within Syria, provide mobile hospitals, and reaffirmed its ambition to develop post-war Syria’s infrastructure.

The US and EU countries were, however, allowed to attend the 4th International Trade Exhibition for Rebuilding Syria which concluded on October 6.

While being technically “allowed”, Western participants were not exactly welcome. A manager at a major Syrian tile manufacturing company stated: “I don’t hope that the West will come here, because it had a big hand in the war against Syria.”

At the same time, Nikki Haley, the outgoing US ambassador to the United Nations, has intimated that the US is not even interested in helping “rebuild Syria”, calling the notion “absurd”.

In fact, following the passage of the Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act, the United States has strengthened its commitment to imposing sanctions on the regime and Assad-allied governments and financial institutions.

With economic pressure on the Syrian government reported to be growing, it is likely to look for more external reconstruction support, a gap which Beijing will aggressively look to fill.

China has taken ambitious steps to burnish an identity as a stakeholder concerned with Syria and the broader region’s development and security.

From China, Chechnya and beyond, foreign jihadists flocked to Syria. Is Idlib their final stand?

In July’s China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, promises of US$20 billion in loans for infrastructure development were accompanied by a nearly US$100 million package dedicated to humanitarian assistance for Syria and Yemen, where another civil war is being fought.

While on the surface China’s ambitions are economically geared, China also stands to gain geopolitically if its reconstruction promises lead to greater cooperation with a stable post-war Syria.

With Assad’s support, China could link Damascus into the China-Central Asia-West Asia economic corridor as part of its Belt and Road Initiative and strike a deal for the development of and access to Syria’s Tartus port.

These ambitions do not seem far from reality. On October 9, a container ship capable of holding 10,000 containers docked at Lebanon’s Tripoli seaport, inaugurating a Chinese-developed shipping line between Beijing and a port less than 30km (18.5 miles) from the Syria-Lebanon border.

On October 10, China held a ceremony in Lattakia, a major Syrian port, announcing its donation of 800 electrical power generators.

These are not isolated examples. Through incremental reconstruction and infrastructure development projects, China is accumulating influence in Syria and the region.

Donald Trump is trusted less than China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Pew global opinion survey

Meanwhile, US sanctions and diminishing Western influence in the conflict are further boosting China’s capacity to strike deals.

Syria Construction Week, a trade event to be held in Damascus between November 12 and 15, will be a telling display of which countries will assume the mantle of Syria’s regrowth and rebirth.

But there is likely to be little surprise about the outcome: an enthusiastic representation of pro-Assad stakeholders, little Western presence and China flashing the heftiest chequebook.

Logan Pauley is a Herbert Scoville Jr Peace Fellow with the East Asia programme at the Stimson Center, a non-partisan think tank in Washington.