September 28, 2023
IntelBrief: Assad Attempts to Cozy Up to China, Seeks Help Rebuilding Syria
Just last week, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited China, his first trip to the country in nearly two decades. The trip came as Assad continued his normalization tour, meeting heads of state and attempting to reintegrate himself and Syria into international fora like the Arab League, which Damascus was readmitted to in May. Assad initially visited China in 2004, which was the first visit by a Syrian head of state since ties were formally established between Damascus and Beijing in 1956. During his recent trip, Assad also visited the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou. China announced the formation of a “strategic partnership” with Syria, as Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping announced, “Faced with an international situation full of instability and uncertainty, China is willing to continue to work together with Syria, firmly support each other, promote friendly cooperation, and jointly defend international fairness and justice.”
Throughout Syria’s ongoing civil war, which began in 2011, the Assad regime has slaughtered countless numbers of Syrian civilians and even used chemical weapons against the Syrian people, including women and children. The regime has been accused of other war crimes and crimes against humanity, including systematic detention, torture, and executions. More than a half million people have been killed since the civil war erupted more than twelve years ago, according to estimates from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Despite this, Assad was received in Beijing and met with Xi, as well as other high-ranking leaders of the CCP. China continues to court Middle Eastern countries in an effort to grow its influence in the region. After negotiating a deal that could signal rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Beijing is looking to build on this momentum, particularly during a time when U.S. commitment to the region is being questioned. Syria has praised China for taking a more hands-on approach to the region, especially through its diplomatic initiatives.
Beyond attempting to return to business as usual, Assad is likely looking for funding to reconstruct Syria, torn apart from the civil war and still reeling from active terrorist and insurgent groups, including Islamic State, operating on Syrian soil. China is unlikely to attach preconditions to any aid, but Beijing is also wary of running afoul of U.S. sanctions as part of the Caesar Act. Chinese investment in Syria could be parsimonious, at best, at least until Beijing has more confidence in the staying power of the Assad regime. At the United Nations Security Council, China, along with Russia, has vetoed multilateral sanctions bills numerous times. The Syrian economy is in shambles, millions of Syrians remain food insecure, the regime remains heavily sanctioned, and Assad and his cronies have turned the country into a narco-state, facilitating the production and manufacture of Captagon, a wildly popular amphetamine that generated nearly $6 billion for the Syrian regime in 2021. Smuggling and trafficking of the drug has destabilized neighboring countries and, as a result, features as a major issue between Syria and other nations including Lebanon, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
Both sides are seeking something from the meeting. Assad is desperate for friends and China has never been a country to ask questions about internal dynamics, even if that means looking the other way while dictators slaughter civilians, as Assad has done. Damascus needs the legitimacy that such high-profile meetings confer, in addition to the financing for rebuilding the war-ravaged state. Beijing likely has an interest in the Port of Latakia and Syria has formally committed to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, its signature foreign policy effort. Through several of its state-owned energy firms, China has invested billions of dollars over the years into oil and gas assets in Syria, where Chinese firms hope to return once they deem the security and financial situation to be stable enough. However, Islamic State still maintains various networks throughout Syria, including in the central desert region, as well as in other areas, including the northwest and northeast. Ongoing protests in Sweida have also turned violent and demonstrate that the regime still does not have complete control over the country, despite eliminating the most serious threats with the help of draconian Russian and Iranian counterinsurgency operations. Moreover, Israel continues to attack targets inside Syria, especially Iran-backed militias, giving China even more pause in investing in a country that is still regularly wracked by violence and conflict.