Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is scheduled to travel to China on Thursday to meet his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, according to a presidential statement.
This would be Assad’s first visit to China since 2004, and his second to a foreign country outside the Middle East since the start of the civil war. Assad visited Russia in March.
The aim of the visit is to conduct negotiations and strengthen bilateral relations.
Assad’s visit comes with China’s efforts to to position itself as a key geopolitical player in the Middle East, while Syria hopes to make a comeback from its political exile on the international stage.
Beijing and Damascus have never severed relations. Unlike Western countries that closed their embassies in Syria as soon as the conflict broke out, China kept its embassy throughout, and is said to have maintained a staff of around 80 people.
For Assad, the political gain from such a trip is obvious.
“For Syria, which is poor and isolated, maintaining good relations with a country like China, an emerging superpower and the world’s second-largest economy, will always be of great importance,” said Aron Lund, a fellow at Century International.
Showing that he is part of China’s New Silk Roads project is also a way for Assad to prove that he is not isolated on the international stage.
“So far, we have seen very little economic support from China,” added Lund, . “but even a limited increase could be significant for Assad and Syria.”
Assad intends to use this visit to attract Chinese capital to Syria, whose economy is in tatters. Beijing is perceived as the ideal investor — the country generously doles out foreign investments and regularly circumvents US sanctions, importing for instance, large amounts of Iranian oil.
But a closer look reveals the Syrian context to be a repellent for any serious investment attempts, especially in the reconstruction sector.
While the Chinese government has demonstrated the ease with which it overcomes Western sanctions, the same cannot be said for private companies.
“Major Chinese companies will not be able to embark on this type of project,” said Joseph Daher, a professor at the University of Lausanne.
“For a company to become involved in Syria under sanctions, it would have to have no massive investments in the United States or Europe, or even in areas where transactions are heavily denominated in dollars. So we’re talking about rather medium-sized companies,” Daher said.
The $2 billion industrial park project, and other big promises of Chinese investment in Syria, never materialized.
This is despite the fact that since 2017, Beijing has become Damascus’ leading trading partner. Chinese exports to Syria reached $424.51 million in 2022, according to the UN's Comtrade database, which is a derisory amount.
The port of Latakia
Assad continues to hope that the development of infrastructure will be part of his country’s partnership with China's Belt and Road Initiative.
“Syria doesn’t have much to offer in terms of trade, but it could attract some interest because of its geographical position, in particular its ports and its transit possibilities,” said Lund.
“If the port of Tartus already belongs to the Russian navy, the Assad regime can always give China a license to operate the port of Latakia,” said Ayman Aldassouki, a researcher at Omran for Strategic Studies.
Syria could be China’s Mediterranean opening in the new Silk Road. The announcement of Assad’s trip — which is yet to be confirmed by official authorities — comes a week after US President Joe Biden presented a new rival project to the G20: the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), which would link India to Europe, via the Gulf States and Israel.
“The IMEC will increase the US influence and therefore reduce the influence of China, Washington’s main rival. This could increase Beijing’s interest in the port of Latakia, which would then compete with the port of Haifa in Israel,” said Daher.
Antoine Bondaz, a researcher focusing on China at the Foundation for Strategic Research, a French think tank, is not convinced by this prospect.
“A rapprochement by Iran, Iraq and Syria seems unlikely for the time being,” Bondaz said.
Nevertheless, China could help strengthen the Iranian axis in the region, especially with Washington’s growing involvement in the Gulf and Israel, partly designed to counter Beijing’s influence.
China, which never seriously invested in the Middle East before, has been showing a growing interest in the region, which for a long time was the geopolitical preserve of the United States.
“China’s foreign policy has always been marked on the international and regional scene by a respect for the sovereignty of states, whether authoritarian or not,” said Daher.
“So there is a desire to respect the Syrian state, without doing so at the expense of a relationship with other states with which it has a more important relationship, such as Saudi Arabia. The two dynamics are not contradictory,” he added.
Jinping’s unprecedented visit to Riyadh for a three-day summit with Arab countries in December 2022 symbolizes this dynamic. It was consolidated three months later, when Saudi Arabia and Iran signed a Beijing-brokered surprise détente agreement on March 10.
In the wake of this rapprochement, Riyadh has embarked on a process of normalization with Damascus, and the Saudi Crown Prince has worked to reinstate Assad in the Arab League, inviting him to the Jeddah summit.
“The Syrian regime has been rehabilitated on the regional stage, so there is a desire on China’s part to position itself before other countries, potentially western, to resume dialogue,” said Bondaz.
“Because China is keen to show that, unlike the West, it can talk to the Gulf monarchies, Iran and Syria at the same time, and so to position itself as a key mediator in the region. And along with Russia, they are the only two UN Security Council members able to do so,” he added.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.
*A previous version of this article indicated that Bashar al-Assad was expected to travel to China to attend the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) conference to be held in Beijing this October. The information, which was not confirmed by the Syrian presidency, has been amended.