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Damascus and the Chinese Window

Damascus and the Chinese Window

Monday, 19 July, 2021 - 06:15
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was the first official received by Bashar Assad after he was sworn in as president for a fourth seven-year term. Seeing as the Chinese minister had not visited Damascus in over a decade, it is hard to believe that the timing of his trip was a mere coincidence. Those who know Damascus know that it takes pains to adding symbolism to any step by the president. Of course, the timing of the visit was also not lost on the Chinese, who are also all about the details.

Going beyond the significance of the timing for the internal scene in Syria, we can look at its significance on a broader scale. It took place at a time when American forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan after two raucous decades. Afghanistan itself is ridding itself of the American cloak and preparing to wear an explosives belt called the Taliban. By withdrawing from a country, which history has taught western nations not to invade, the US appears to have abandoned a bomb and left it in the hands of those who fear its impact on their stability and interests, given Afghanistan’s history of civil wars and conflicts. Many countries fear the billowing Afghan flames: Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China and India.

Moreover, the Chinese minister’s visit coincides with American troops in Iraq and Syria coming under attack in an effort to persuade Washington to pull out its forces from those countries sooner than it had planned.

It is no secret to the Chinese minister that he was visiting a country whose regime is covered by Iran and Russia. The truth is, however, that those two covers, which have secured the survival of the regime and its victory against its rivals, have not been able to help it launch its process of reconstruction, return to the regional and international scenes and tackle its crumbling economy.

The Chinese minister’s visit to Damascus reminded me of what I heard years ago in Baghdad. Ahmed al-Chalabi had once said that this part of the world would soon become the stage for the major game of international balances of power. He explained that the US does not have enough patience to salvage its investments in countries it interferes in because the nature of the American system leads to fragile policies.

The US will quit Iraq and leave it to treat its wounds by itself. In the long run, Iran and Iraq will come together. The coming together of countries both on the population and oil levels will not be easy. Turkey has an economic interest in seeing strong ties with Tehran and Baghdad. Moreover, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policies have revealed that Turkey’s inclination towards NATO and Europe are not that deep-rooted.

If you can attract Turkey to join an economic axis that includes Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, then you are nominating the region to the big game. These countries overlook seas and wealth and boast cultures that are far removed from the American one, especially in terms of democracy and human rights. This coming together of nations may entice the current China, because its transformation into the world’s top power means weakening both the US and Russia. The Russian economy does not allow the Kremlin to wage a battle of such scale.

Chalabi realized that China was more capable of reaching an understanding with the countries of the Middle East. It is a country that does not tie its economic and trade relations to the human rights of another country or the way it treats its minorities. Furthermore, it is not concerned with the way these countries deal with their opponents, especially since it rejects any form of foreign opinion on its internal affairs and dismisses it as flagrant foreign meddling. Of course, the colored revolutions do not like the “spring” that led to changes. Chalabi explained that the fears that cripple American decisions, whether at Congress or in the media, don’t even exist in China. The parliament is its own parliament, its media is its own media and the iron grip of the party is unlikely to loosen any time soon, rather technological advances are being used to tighten it.

Throughout the long Syrian crisis and its bloody chapters, China always stood by the regime at the Security Council and opposed any draft resolutions that could allow foreign intervention against the Assad regime. Many observers viewed China’s position as an act of support with Russia that had intervened militarily to save the regime and followed up on its efforts by coordinating with Turkey in dividing and exhausting the Syrian opposition. Wang Yi’s visit, however, implies that China now wants to appear as more than just the backer of Russia’s role. We shouldn’t forget that China, which had dispatched its foreign minister to Damascus, had signed with Tehran a strategic agreement that calls for massive investments.

The talks between the Chinese minister with his Syrian counterpart imply that their countries are headed towards a new chapter in relations. Reports in Damascus have said that Beijing had pledged to carry out a series of infrastructure projects as part of the Belt and Road initiative. Wang Yi’s statements demonstrated that China is determined to deepen its political and diplomatic ties with the Syrian regime, especially after underscoring the importance of Syrian territorial unity, rejecting any meddling in its affairs and hailing its fight against terrorism.

The Chinese visitor’s trip at the beginning of Assad’s fourth term is undoubtedly significant. It bolsters his standing among those that can be called his allies – Russia and China. It is too soon to speak of Chinese cover that will compete with the Russian and Iranian ones, but the Chinese window can open further. It is a card in the confrontation against the US that now considers the Chinese Communist Party as the true “Great Satan”. Furthermore, Europe’s attention was also drawn to the Chinese minister’s visit despite its own major concerns at home.

The Chinese visitor arrived at the end of the storm. No one speaks of overthrowing the Syrian regime anymore. Some have been demanding that it change its behavior and at least, outwardly, appear to implement the essence of Security Council resolutions. Western countries can complicate Syria’s return to the international community and complicate its reconstruction, but they do not seem ready to join a front that is seeking to topple the Syrian regime. At any rate, the rhetoric of victory was evident during Assad’s swearing in speech. The victory, however, does not eliminate the size of the massive challenges on Syrian territories.

The question remains: What does Assad want from the upcoming phase? What does he want on the internal scene and what does he want on the external one? Will the numerous covers enable Damascus to weaken their grip and restore the chances of the Syrian player and rebuild its capacities, or will Syria have to endure several flags fluttering over its territories?

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