Syria Reconstruction Offers China Influence in the Middle East Without Firing a Shot

In the middle of July, Russia’s top military official, Valery Gerasimov, sent a letter to the US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, America’s highest ranking soldier, with an offer. The Syrian regime, he wrote, lacked the necessary material, equipment and funding to rebuild the country, and without rebuilding it would not be able to accept returning refugees. The Russian side proposed forming a joint group with the US to finance infrastructure reconstruction and resettle refugees. According to a US memo leaked to Reuters, the proposal was rejected.

The memo highlights what has become the last piece of political leverage for Western countries, the ability to offer or withhold funds to reconstruct Syria. As the influence of Western countries on the civil war has retreated and they and their allies have been out-maneuvered by Turkey, Iran and Russia, reconstruction funds have become the last bargaining chip. But the longer Western countries wait to play that chip, the less valuable it will become.

European countries, in particular, have vacillated for years over the issue of reconstruction. It was hoped that the deeper pockets of European countries and their Arab allies could persuade the Assad regime toward a political settlement. At various times, reconstruction has been both a carrot and a stick. It started as a carrot in 2016, when the EU suggested that a political transition, even if it were still headed by Bashar Al Assad, could be offered financial support. But when both the regime and the opposition rejected the idea, reconstruction morphed into a threat, that absent a genuine political transition, Western money would not fund reconstruction.

That threat, while real, is steadily being diluted by other countries. Russia and Iran are already competing for lucrative contracts in Syria; even Lebanese companies, with the experience of reconstructing after their civil war, are eyeing contracts.

None, certainly, have the deep pockets of the West and its Arab allies. But there may be one contender that does. Helping reconstruct Syria offers China a way to gain influence in the heart of the Middle East, all without firing a shot. What Russia had to fight a war to gain, China could acquire simply through offering loans.

A year ago, Syria hosted its first “Reconstruction Fair” outside the country – in Beijing. It was organized by the regime and the China-Arab Exchange Association, a Chinese NGO. The Association had already organized several trips to Syria for Chinese companies and entrepreneurs. At the event, it was announced that Beijing would invest $2 billion into an industrial park in Syria. No detailed plans have been released, but it was a statement of intent that China took investment in the country seriously. Syria’s ambassador to Beijing said the regime would give priority to China, Russia and Iran in all future reconstruction projects.

In the past two decades, China has made part of its foreign policy playbook offers of loans to countries few others would lend to. Countries that have benefitted from its largesse include Djibouti, Mongolia and Laos, all poor countries with few other options. Chinese investment in ports, roads and railways in struggling countries gives Beijing immense leverage and political influence. Sri Lanka, unable to repay Chinese companies for building a new port in the southern province of Hambantota, last year leased the port to China for a century.

None of this has gone unnoticed in the West, which has taken to decrying Chinese influence in Africa and Asia in vituperative terms. Hillary Clinton even called it a “new colonialism.”

In some ways, reconstructing Syria is a natural fit for China. Reconstruction will be expensive; a Syrian think-tank put the cost at US$200 billion. The UN’s special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, put it higher, at $250 billion. The things that Syria most needs, like the basic infrastructure of roads, bridges, schools and hospitals are also the things that China has excelled at building in Africa and Asian countries; they are also broadly apolitical.

Moreover, Syria could easily fit into China’s existing Belt and Road initiative. Although there are no definitive maps, one of the land “belts” crosses through Iran, Iraq and into Turkey. It would not be difficult to sweep through parts of Syria in the process.

That is why the leaked Russian offer of a deal to the US is rather different than it first appears. Both Russia and the US are at a strategic disadvantage. Russia would prefer to have the US partner with it over reconstruction, because it gives Russia some control over the process while also giving it leverage over its rivals like China. Yet the US, in common with other Western countries, also faces a strategic dilemma.

Offer loans for reconstruction to Damascus, and Western money will be used to prop up the very regime that destroyed the country. Withhold funds and other countries will step in, gifting them more influence in a vital area for Western interests. Wait too long to decide, and any reconstruction money offered will bring a commensurately lower rate of political influence in return.

After so much bloodshed, Russia’s new-found influence in Syria is being threatened by a rival. America’s historic influence in the Middle East is ebbing away. Without firing a shot, China is being welcomed into the heart of Syrian political power. A war that was described as a proxy battlefield for the great powers has blown open a path for an emerging rival.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.

AFP PHOTO/Delil Souleiman