Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks to journalists in Damascus, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA on January 9, 2017. Photo: SANA / handout via REUTERS
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks to journalists in Damascus, Syria, in this handout picture provided by SANA on January 9, 2017. Photo: SANA / handout via REUTERS

Throughout the course of the Syrian civil war, observers and analysts have made much of Syria’s strategic alliance with both the Russian Federation and the Islamic Republic of Iran. While both continue to be important allies in Bashar al-Assad’s fight to remain in power, they are not his only friends in high places, however. In a rare interview with Chinese media last month, the Syrian president called China, “a real friend, a friend that you can rely on.”

Historical relations between China and Syria

Relations between the People’s Republic of China and Syria were established in 1956. Seven years later, in 1963, the centrist government of Syria was overthrown in a coup d’état by officers under the auspices of the Syrian Arab Ba’ath Party, whose rule has lasted continuously until now. Similar to the Ba’ath party of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Syria’s espouses a pan-Arab, socialist style of governance.

Keen to expand its influence in other socialist states, Beijing extended US$16 million in aid to the nascent party in 1963. In 1969, the ambitious Syrian Defence Minister, Hafez al-Assad, discerned the value of using Beijing as an ally to counter interference from Moscow when he sent his deputy, Mustafa Tlass, to China to broker an arms deal. A year later, he orchestrated a coup within the Syrian Ba’ath party and the al-Assad family has been in power since.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Syria’s relations with China were cordial, but politically and economy limited. However, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Damascus began to turn eastward, looking towards Beijing for support. The latter obliged, brokering a deal for a small 30MW nuclear research reactor and supplying Syria with intermediate range ballistic missiles. Following the 2004 visit of Bashar al-Assad to Beijing, economic relations picked up, with China investing hundreds of millions of dollars into the Syrian oil industry. Bilateral trade jumped from US$174 million in 2000 to US$2.27 billion by 2010, making China Syria’s third most important trade partner.

While this has generated much goodwill towards Beijing among important members of Syria’s political and economic order, the former still plays second fiddle to Russia and Iran for the al-Assad family.

Civil war

Since the start of the civil war that has engulfed Syria, China has approached the conflict in its usual diplomatic and cautious manner. A number of factors shape Beijing’s attitude towards Damascus. Firstly, in the wake of civil war, regime change and ongoing strife in Libya – which had been one of China’s most important oil suppliers – Beijing has set itself against Western interventionism, which it sees as jeopardizing its own economic interests. (One example of this was China using its Security Council veto power to block UN resolutions sanctioning Syria for using chemical weapons against its citizens.) Secondly, an al-Assad victory strengthens the position in the region of Iran, which China is coming to perceive as a counterweight to American domination in the Persian Gulf.

Yet China has yet to seriously commit anything to Syria beyond diplomatic and economic support, throwing doubt on how far it is willing to go to protect the al-Assad regime. The pinnacle of its support came in August 2016, when it announced its intention to provide personnel training and humanitarian aid to the regime.

Chinese support seems very much contingent on the perception that al-Assad is winning the war. In the event of an al-Assad victory, Russia and Iran will likely come to dominate the foreign policy of whatever is left of the regime in Damascus. However it will likely be China that rebuilds the nation, and its ports, from the ground up, buying itself a far more stable and strategic foothold in Syrian affairs in the process.

Luciano Arvin

Luciano Arvin is an independent scholar, covering the Middle East. His work has seen publication in the Diplomat, and the International Policy Digest.

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