The journalist Jonathan Fenton-Harvey, who is a researcher focusing on geopolitics, conflict and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa, wrote in the US Al Monitor website,
in which he said that the increasing presence of China in the Middle East places Syria as a strategic objective for its sphere of influence, while tensions with the United States amid the Coronavirus epidemic are now driving Beijing’s growing interest in Syria.
China is looking to increase its influence in war-torn Syria and use the Corona virus epidemic to accelerate these plans.
The writer added that Syrian President Bashar Al Assad asked for Beijing’s help in the reconstruction and repair of damages resulting from the 9-year conflict.
President Assad seems to feel that China will give Syria the ability to continue after the war under his auspices.
Last December, Assad welcomed more Chinese investment, saying: “Now, with the liberation of most areas, we started discussions with a number of Chinese companies with experience in reconstruction”.
He continued, “It is well known that rebuilding countries destroyed partially or totally by the war is very profitable and has high returns on investment”.
On May 31 last year, the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs supported China’s introduction of national security legislation and the imposition of sovereignty over Hong Kong.
“Syria has been keen to promote itself as part of the Chinese” Belt and Road “initiative, which often calls for the myths of the Silk Road and the importance that Damascus occupies on that date”, said Lucille Greer, a researcher at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Al Monitor.
Syrian officials highlight Syria’s geographical links with Europe and Africa, which is the point that China has also echoed.
“There are plans to include Syria in the large number of railways that China is building in the region in the name of the Belt and Road Initiative”, Greer added.
The writer said that military supporters of President Assad – Russia and Iran – lack the financial means to meet the reconstruction needs in Syria, which are estimated between $ 250 million and $ 400 billion.
Although the Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have raised the temperature in the relationship with Damascus – especially after Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed called President Assad on March 27, expressing the UAE’s support to the Syrian people at this time – it will fight in order to bypass the European Union and the United States sanctions on Syria.
Therefore, China is the only country that Assad can turn to.
Certainly, China has an interest in investing in Syria.
The Syrian-Chinese Business Council states on its website that “Syrian and foreign companies will participate in the reconstruction of Syria, and Chinese companies will get the largest share”.
The two countries enjoy strong trade ties, while Beijing and Damascus signed various memoranda of understanding, including the process of reforming and protecting Syrian heritage sites and displaying Chinese products in Syria.
China also offered limited humanitarian aid to Syria in 2017, and signed aid deals worth $ 40 million, which indicates that Beijing has so far suspended its willingness to invest heavily in the country.
However, China’s investment in post-war Iraq may serve as a blueprint for its aspirations in Syria.
China, along with Russia, has repeatedly used its veto power against UN Security Council resolutions against President Assad’s government, indicating its alliance with Moscow over Syria.
At the same time, the author said, “Beijing’s ideological and security concerns make the Assad regime appear more attractive” as Assad supports China in fighting terrorism in Xinjiang.
“While the Uighur military advisors and fighters from Xinjiang have worked side by side with the Syrian opposition, Beijing is seeking to cooperate with the Syrian regime on this issue”.
China has supported the government of President Assad, in line with its stated principles of non-interference in the country’s affairs.
James Dorsey, Senior Fellow of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, told Al Monitor that at the beginning of the Idlib battle, Beijing was studying the possibility of sending a Chinese military force, but military intervention was excluded.
While President Al Assad’s control of the country will provide stability for Chinese investments, Beijing is also wary of the security risks to Chinese employees and investments, after it withdrew its operations from Yemen and Libya in the wake of their conflicts.
As a result of previous pressure from Washington and Turkey’s current participation in Idlib, Beijing has previously sought to overcome this and avoid public interference.
Amid its growing interest in Syria, China has strengthened its focus on the outbreak of the Corona virus in the country, while it has used “Covid-19 Diplomacy” to enhance its ties elsewhere in the region, especially the Gulf.
On May 18, Yao Shaojun, Deputy Permanent Representative of China to the United Nations, called for an end to the escalation in Syria and cooperation on the Coronavirus, adding: “There is an opportunity to promote a comprehensive dialogue and create conditions for a political solution” to counter the epidemic.
However, China provided limited assistance on the Coronavirus to Syria, including only two cardboard boxes with a supply value on May 13, and nearly 2,000 test kits on April 15.
But Beijing has not changed its policies due to the virus; Its gestures were more symbolic and reputation-enhancing, as she presented herself as a leader in the fight against the virus.
The writer believed that the growing Chinese – American tensions – which have risen after accusations of dealing with the outbreak of the epidemic – could push Beijing more towards investing in Syria.
Since China currently has three ports in Haifa, Ashkelon in Israel and Piraeus in Athens, the Chinese port empire may be under threat given that there is intense pressure from Washington on Israel to remove China from the port of Haifa”.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview during his visit to Jerusalem on May 14: “We do not want the Chinese Communist Party to have access to Israeli infrastructure, Israeli communications systems, and all the things that endanger Israeli citizens”.
Later that month, Israel rejected a $ 1.5 billion contract for China to build a power plant.
While the United States has warned its other allies in the Middle East not to accept Chinese investment, these clear risks to China’s strategic relations with Israel will force Beijing to focus on non-aligned countries, particularly Syria.
Therefore, China will seek to invest in ports in the Syrian cities of Latakia and Tartous, and thus look more towards Syria if it loses influence in Haifa.
While China also looks at the port of Tripoli in Lebanon, Syria will be a central part of Beijing’s influence in the eastern Mediterranean, helping it to bypass the Suez Canal and outpacing the Fifth American Fleet.
In October 2018, China supplied 800 electric generators to the Syrian port of Latakia, indicating its willingness to invest there.
Last December, Russia announced plans to invest $ 500 million in the Syrian port of Tartous, but Dorsey argued that this would not hinder China’s participation, given their close alliance.
Lucille Greer said that the threat of US sanctions would have previously discouraged China from excessive interference in Syria, but the harsh climate of US-China relations today could push Beijing to review its previously restricted position.