The Syrian angle

Bassel Oudat , Friday 17 Mar 2023

Syria is at the heart of China’s moves, writes Bassel Oudat from Damascus.

The Syrian angle
Bradley fighting vehicles at a US military base in northeastern Syria (photo: AP)


Syrians were caught off guard by the new role that China seems to be taking in the Middle East. Last week, China not only brokered a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it also publicly accused Washington of pillaging Syria and demanded that the US exit the country. Both these issues have backstories and long-term consequences, indicating that the Syrian question is likely change in unpredictable ways.

At a news conference last week, Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, accused the US of “major and continued pillaging” of Syria. Zhao said that US interference, especially militarily, resulted in “major losses among civilians and immeasurable economic losses. It also displaced millions of people.” He added that the US imposed “harsh coercive measures that deprived Syrians of their basic needs. Control of 80 per cent of Syrian oil by US forces further compounds the humanitarian crisis.” He concluded, “the US measures of aggression, sanctions and support of terrorists rendered a once prosperous nation that welcomed refugees into a destroyed country that resembles a large refugee camp.”

This unprecedented attack on the US by China serves two purposes. First, it is a message that Beijing, which used its veto power six times in favour of the Syrian regime against the opposition and is an organic partner of Russia that wholeheartedly supports President Bashar Al-Assad, is also an ally of the regime. And this relationship will continue, unlike the positions of most other countries that demand the regime should agree to a political solution before mending ties.

Ayham Rifaat, a Syrian political analyst, argues, “China wants to support the Syrian regime by lifting sanctions and ending the international boycott of the regime. Therefore, it is radically trying to blame the US for the tragedies that have occurred in Syria over the past 12 years. However, Beijing is ignoring the roles of Russia, Iran and the regime itself in what has unfolded in Syria as well as the role of Iranian and Lebanese militias in the country. China sees them all as innocent while the only problem is the US. This is unrealistic and a deficient vision that lacks logic and political acumen.”

The Saudi-Iranian agreement sponsored by Beijing came as a shock to the Syrian opposition, and it was even more disturbing than China’s criticism of Washington. The deal paves the way for the return of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia, the opposition’s main supporter, and Iran, a staunch ally of the regime. This worries the  Syrian opposition because it could upset delicate balances and alliances. While the opposition grew anxious and concerned, the Syrian government warmly welcomed the deal and greatly appreciated China’s “sincere efforts”.

“This step will enhance security and stability in the region,” government spokespeople said, hoping that these efforts will continue “to include relations among our Arab countries.”  They hoped the agreement would also improve Syrian-Saudi relations, end sanctions against the Syrian regime, and open the door to broader Arab normalisation.

For 12 years, Iran supported the Syrian regime in its long war. Tehran provided financial and military assistance and partnered in the war effort through Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese militias. To some extent, it also dominated Syria’s political and military decisions. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia provided the opposition with political and military support, and was a key advocate of regime change in Syria.

Neither the opposition nor the regime know whether Saudi Arabia or Iran will change their positions on the Syrian issue due to this agreement, or whether the Syrian stage will be excluded and nothing will change because this is a sensitive issue and a global priority.

China’s efforts come at a time when US-Chinese relations are very tense, especially after Chinese spy balloons were spotted over US territories and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken cancelled a trip to Beijing to mend fences. Meanwhile, the US Congress is discussing China’s threat to US hegemony around the world, amid ongoing tensions over Taiwan. Washington is also bolstering relations with China’s neighbours by creating a four-party alliance with Japan, Australia and India. It has threatened to sanction China if it supplies Russia with weapons to support the war effort in Ukraine.

The deal also comes at a time when US-Saudi relations are obviously cold, especially after Saudi Arabia decided to reduce its oil production and ignored appeals by the US to postpone reducing oil production. Saudi and Russian relations, however, are notably improving.

The opposition anticipates that Iran will not uphold its side of the bargain and will continue interfering in the affairs of regional countries. It will not stop interfering in Syria’s domestic affairs; it will not ease its hold on Syrian political decision-making; it will not withdraw its militias and Hizbullah militias from Syria. These requirements
are all stipulated in the agreement with Saudi Arabia.

A more optimistic camp in the opposition believes the Saudi-Iranian agreement may end disagreements between two heavyweights in the region. If the deal is implemented, it could be a means to douse the fire and so reduce tensions between the main supporters of the opposition and the regime. It could force all Syrian players
to implement international resolutions regarding a political solution in the country.

However, Brigadier General Ahmed Rahal, member of the Syrian opposition, believes Iran is certain to circumvent the agreement on issues pertaining to Syria and others. The reconciliation agreement stipulates that Saudi Arabia and Iran “should stop interfering in the domestic affairs of other countries,” Rahal said. “But the dilemma lies in implementation. Even though China vouched to oversee implementation. Iran views its overseas centres of power as its first line of defence of the theocratic regime and its presence in these countries is based on understandings and requests by the governments there, but in fact they are subject to Tehran’s will. Most people in the region reject this, and Iran will never end its interference on the pretext that it is the request of the governments of those countries.”

Although the White House downplayed the significance of the Saudi-Iranian agreement and ignored China’s accusations, it cannot ignore the repercussions of China’s strategic pivot. It is a clear expansion of China’s role in the Middle East at the expense of the roles of Europe and the US.

“It is a victory for China to impose itself as a strategic player in the Gulf region,” according to Syrian researcher Mahmoud Othman. “It represents a geo-political challenge for Washington in the 21st century. The Saudi-Iranian deal is an unprecedented historic turning point, ushering in China’s era in the Middle East and perhaps the world. This means any Iranian aggression against Saudi Arabia will be deterred by China (which guarantees Riyadh’s security to some extent), not the US. More accurately, Gulf security in general, and Saudi security in particular, has become China’s responsibility when in the past it was Washington’s.”

It is difficult to predict what will happen next in Syria. It will be hard for Saudi Arabia to simply switch sides and support the Syrian regime. The agreement with Iran is one thing, and a deal with the regime is another based on many other factors and calculations. Nonetheless, it is clear that China, which attacks US presence in Syria and sponsors reconciliation agreements between Iran and Saudi Arabia, has launched a new phase in imposing itself as a powerful political player in the region, one that does not necessarily hide behind the Russians, but rather stands in the forefront like any other major country intervening in the Syrian conflict.

Iran’s infiltration of the Middle East is not limited to Syria alone, where Tehran dominates political decisions and has penetrated it economically and militarily. It also includes Lebanon, which is in a political and economic crisis under the influence of Hizbullah. In Iraq, Iran has dug its claws deeply through the Popular Mobilisation Forces and Shiite political players. Yemen, meanwhile, is mired in an absurd war. And all this is in accordance with the principle of “exporting the revolution” as enshrined in the Iranian constitution.

Will the export of the Iranian Revolution to the Arab countries ever cease? Will the Iranian Revolutionary Guard stop supporting jihad in Arab countries? Arabs must wait for an answer before they can judge the extent of China’s ability to influence regional politics.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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