Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad concluded an official visit to China that began on 21 September this week, having been invited by Chinese President Xi Jinping to attend the opening of the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou.
This was the first visit by Al-Assad to China since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011 and his second since he came to power, with the earlier visit taking place in 2004.
The Chinese Presidency said that the trip reflected the desire of the two countries to establish a strategic partnership, continue support on issues of interest to both countries, and work bilaterally to strengthen Syria’s capacities in reconstruction and combatting terrorism.
The government media in Syria focused on the visit, declaring it evidence of the end of Syria’s international isolation and a political and diplomatic victory for Al-Assad. It was also promoted as marking the end of the embargo imposed on Syria by the international community and bolstering the legitimacy of its regime.
During the five-day visit, Al-Assad and Xi announced the establishment of a “strategic partnership” between the two countries. Xi said that his country was ready to continue working with Syria, providing it with assistance and support for reconstruction and recovery efforts.
Al-Assad said that the visit was more than an invitation to inaugurate a sports event, but rather came at a time when a multipolar world was emerging to restore international balance and stability.
The visit was unexpected and came amid shifting international and regional dynamics.
The Russian-Ukrainian war and its repercussions as well as conflicts in the Middle East have cast a long shadow over international stability, with the resulting international alignments, the US and European response to them, and the Russian-Chinese alliance in the face of them creating new issues that threaten global security.
Even if Al-Assad’s visit to China was only to attend the opening of the Asian Games, the trip should also be seen as a bid by Syria to end its isolation through rapprochement with a global heavyweight such as China.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, China has fully sided with the regime, abstained from voting for resolutions that condemn it at international fora, and even used its veto power at the UN Security Council to block draft resolutions on Syria.
Beijing has its sights set on playing a substantial role in the reconstruction process once the Syrian crisis ends and an internationally acceptable political solution is implemented or if the US and Europe stop tethering reconstruction to a political settlement in Syria.
For the moment, it is unclear what the “strategic partnership” between China and Syria will look like. It could be purely economic and commercial and relate to the possibility of China’s participation in reconstruction once a political solution is reached in Syria, or it could include a political dimension regarding support for the Syrian regime.
It could have a regional dimension since China could use it to confront other players in the region that it does not want to confront directly.
For China, inviting Al-Assad to visit, under a global boycott and his regime subject to broad US and European sanctions, is undoubtedly a challenge with political and diplomatic dimensions.
Beijing’s declaration of what it called “joint cooperation to defend international justice and peace” may mean that China seeks, or hopes, to lead a camp that offsets the monopoly of global leadership.
Beijing may want to manage a multipolar international system and view isolated regimes as pawns it can win towards this goal. They could be used as assets on the global stage in general and in relations with the US in particular.
China may also have ambitions to play a more effective role in a Syrian political settlement, which after 12 years has remained stubbornly unattainable. Beijing wants to see stability in Syria because its absence would impact the reconstruction process once it begins.
Syria is currently not attractive to the giant Chinese companies, which will stay away until security is prevalent.
For the Syrian regime, the trip is part of attempts by Al-Assad and Syrian diplomacy to end its Arab, regional, and international isolation and bolster ties to an economic and military heavyweight such as China.
Having Russia and Iran as allies it seems is not enough, even though they have effectively contributed to keeping the regime in power as well as ending its Arab isolation.
The regime aspires to go beyond its Arab alliances and support and move to an international level through a strategic partnership with a trustworthy “international partner” that will help it to achieve “international legitimacy” in the foreseeable future.
Some observers believe Al-Assad’s visit to China could achieve some of these goals in the short run, even though the goals on either side are unclear and not guaranteed.
Reconstruction is off the table due to the US and European embargo, and China will not violate the sanctions. Washington’s warnings make it unlikely that any Chinese company will venture to work in Syria and sacrifice global markets in exchange for business in a small country suffering from economic, political, and security problems.
Syrian political researcher Alaa Al-Asfari, who is close to the government, said the visit was a “high-calibre strategy [to] save the Syrian economy and represents a bid for a sustainable partnership since both sides share international and regional perspectives. It also combats the Western-US influence in the region.”
“This partnership will be strategic and its results rapid,” according to Al-Asfari, “with giant projects starting in a few months. They could begin by providing alternative and clean energy to Syria and contributing to reconstruction and restoring infrastructure.”
Syrian opposition analyst Saeed Muqbel disagreed, however. “It is unlikely that any clear goals or outcomes will be achieved as long as there are international and US sanctions in place,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“We will not see Chinese investments or financing for reconstruction. The visit will not alleviate the dilapidated economy or cure the unprecedented economic freefall or the government’s financial crisis.”
“However, Al-Assad gained confirmation of China’s support for him in a strong and public affirmation from the world’s second-largest power that has for years been seeking to boost its influence in the Middle East and Africa,” Muqbel said.
“This moral gain is more of a victory for China than for Syria.”
China is cautious about crossing US red lines whenever it is able not to do so. In the Middle East, and specifically Syria, it has not provided military support to the Syrian regime, nor sent in troops or military equipment.
Instead, it has maintained political and diplomatic relations with Damascus during the crisis and has not confronted the US or regional powers that intervened in Syria or were involved in combat.
China is focused on the current and future economic conflict in the region and is betting on a future economic relationship with a Middle Eastern country on the Mediterranean that is considered to be a major route for trade between Asia and Europe and enjoys a strategic location between Iraq, Turkey, the Arabian Gulf, and China.
Beijing’s growing involvement in political and economic issues around the world, which multiplied after the Ukrainian crisis, its alliance with Russia and Iran, and its support for the Syrian regime have all inspired it to think about becoming more involved in one of the most complex and volatile crises in the Middle East region.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 28 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly