China And Syria Announce “Strategic Partnership” While Syrians Suffer

China has extended an offer of “strategic partnership” to Syria in the latest diplomatic victory for shunned Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad. President Assad met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Chinese city of Hangzhou on September 22nd, 2023 ahead of the Asian Games. In a show of support for the Syrian leader, President Xi stated that “‘China opposes interference by external forces in Syria’s internal affairs… and will support Syria’s reconstruction.”

Analysts judge that both countries stand to benefit from the partnership as President Assad is desperate for foreign allies and China aims to establish itself as the leading superpower in the Middle East. Speaking to the New York Times, Julia Gurol-Haller, a political scientist at the University of Freiburg, said that ‘The hope [for Assad] is that China might again use its role as a facilitator to mediate between Syria, Turkey, Iran and Russia to restore Assad’s government to control of the country.” Meanwhile, Helen-Ann Smith, Asia correspondent for Sky News, said the partnership allows President Xi to show that “China will do things its own way and doesn’t need to play along with Western set international norms.”

China already has more than 110 “strategic partners” around the world, so this announcement does not imply that Syria will become one of its most significant allies. In contrast, Syria has friendly diplomatic relations with precious few states. President Assad was ostracised by the diplomatic community as a result of his brutal crackdown on rebels throughout the Syrian civil war, which began more than 12 years ago and is still ongoing. This isolation has left Syria economically ruined, even now that most of the country is once again under the control of the regime, and these economic woes have sparked fresh protests against President Assad. China’s offer of support may be the lifeline he needs to cling to power.

What China stands to gain from the partnership is an opportunity to cement its position as the leading superpower in the Middle East. This is a role which President Xi has been keen for China to play since his government brokered a deal to ease hostilities between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March.

Whether China’s pledged support for the reconstruction of Syria will include financial investment remains to be seen. Any parties dealing with the Syrian regime are subject to asset-freezes under the United States’ 2020 Caesar Act. If President Xi makes good on his promise to his newest friend, he risks retaliation from the West.

Matthew Price