The announcement that the United States will withdraw its remaining troops from Syria has clear implications for many players with interests at stake in the ongoing civil war. Attention has focused on what the U.S. withdrawal will mean for the Kurds, and whether Turkey will be less restrained, or how Iran and Russia might try to project influence farther east in rebel-held territories retaken from the Islamic State. Noticeably absent from these analyses has been how the withdrawal would affect another great power with vested interests in the Middle East—China.
China has gradually become more involved in the Syrian civil war since the conflict started in 2011, a divergence from China’s traditional approach to foreign policy, which mostly eschews external intervention and promotes state sovereignty. A more hands-on approach to Syria was evident in August 2016, when Rear Admiral Guan Youfei of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) pledged not only increased humanitarian assistance but also military-to-military cooperation between Damascus and Beijing, effectively siding with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his international allies, Russia and Iran. Prior to this, China was a significant player in the conflict but mostly through arms sales—Guan’s offer represented an escalation of support and involvement. Although the extent of Sino-Syrian cooperation remains ambiguous due to Beijing’s firm denial of any active military presence, the cooperation has reportedly only deepened, with China supplying intelligence personnel, strategic advisors and special forces in 2017.
China has also demonstrated its interest in taking advantage of economic opportunities in post-conflict Syria, which the World Bank estimates to be a staggering $400 billion. Two-hundred Chinese companies were present at the 60th Damascus International Fair in September 2018, where they pledged deals ranging from car manufacturing to development of mobile hospitals. And U.S.-led sanctions against the Assad regime and diminishing Western influence in the conflict leave China with little competition. The reconstruction of the Syrian army will also allow China to increase its arms exports.
China’s economic and security interests in Syria are intertwined with its geopolitical ambitions. China is seeking to boost its legitimacy on the world stage by playing an active role in international conflict resolution and reconstruction. The U.S. withdrawal from Syria could allow Beijing to further assert its role as a key international partner in Syria and, by extension, further Chinese interests in the Middle East that can help China realize its potential as an assertive power capable of operating outside of its traditional sphere of influence.
China will likely be afforded a wealth of opportunities following the withdrawal, as its overtures to Damascus have signaled a willingness to help rebuild Syria’s infrastructure, decimated by nearly a decade of civil war. Beijing will have the chance to play a significant role in post-conflict reconstruction while solidifying its growing legitimacy as a major player in the region. Many of these opportunities will benefit Chinese economic interests and increase China’s influence in the region relative to the United States. But China also has a counterterrorism interest in Syria. The significant presence in Syria of Uighurs, a Muslim-minority population that lives in Xinjiang province in China’s northwest, is a major concern for China. Especially concerning is the possibility that some of these individuals will eventually attempt to return home from the Middle East to launch terrorist attacks on Chinese soil.
Chinese Uighurs traveled to Syria and joined a number of terrorist groups, including the Islamic State and al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. Training and fighting together in Syria strengthened the bonds between Middle Eastern jihadists and members of Uighur terrorist groups that could threaten China, including the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and the Turkestan Islamic Party.
Returning foreign fighters pose a threat to China’s domestic security, and those that remain abroad could target the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s signature foreign policy project focused on developing robust infrastructure throughout Asia. Over the past few years, Chinese nationals have been killed in attacks in Mali, Thailand and Pakistan. In 2016, responsibility for an attack on China’s embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, was claimed by the Turkestan Islamic Party. These trends illustrate that China is being deliberately targeted abroad by transnational terrorist organizations. It is of the utmost importance to the Chinese Communist Party to protect its infrastructure and personnel abroad under the umbrella of the Belt and Road Initiative, and hardened terrorists with operational experience from Syria threaten the security of China’s most ambitious foreign policy initiative in the 21st century.
The timing for Beijing’s unprecedented 2016 decision to actively support Assad is crucial to understanding China’s motive and key objectives in Syria. In late 2015, the Chinese Communist Party passed its first counterterrorism law, which allows Beijing to conduct joint counterterrorism operations overseas. In late 2017, reports surfaced of the first PLA special forces, the “Tiger of Dark Night” or “Night Tigers,” being deployed in the port city of Tartous for counterterrorism purposes. China’s decision to side with Assad and his international partners in Syria should be interpreted as Beijing betting on the side it believes will be victorious and most capable of helping China address its concerns about militant Uighurs. The move represents a failure on the part of the U.S. to engage China in international counterterrorism cooperation. What is more, the U.S. withdrawal from Syria will allow China to use its new counterterrorism policy as a foothold to increase its influence in the region and beyond.
Over the past two decades, the United States has damaged its reputation by spending trillions of dollars on its wars in the Middle East, losing thousands of troops and facing accusations of infringing on states’ sovereignty. China is now attempting to position itself as a neutral player in the region, following its blueprint of providing economic assistance in exchange for access to resources and strategic assets, including ports and military bases. China’s increasing involvement in Syria comes at an opportune moment—Assad could see Beijing as a preferable alternative to Persian Gulf State financing for reconstruction, and China may pour money into the country in exchange for control of critical infrastructure and significant political influence. At the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in July 2018, China pledged $20 billion in loans to Arab states and almost $100 million in humanitarian aid for Syria and Yemen. Controversial tech-giant Huawei, a company the United States has accused of repeatedly stealing trade secrets, has voiced its commitment to redevelop Syria’s entire telecommunications network. China may also try to further enhance its trans-Asiatic economic corridor by bringing Syria’s Tartus port and Damascus into the Belt and Road Initiative. But for Assad, it could be a case of “buyer beware”—although development help from Beijing can seem beneficial at first, there are always strings attached when dealing with the Chinese Communist Party, as illustrated by the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and the Doraleh Container Terminal in Djibouti, where China took over full ownership of the facilities once the host countries grew overwhelmed by interest-laden debt.
By supporting Assad, China has opted for a partnership with Iran and Russia in the Middle East. The United States, by its own accord, will be left out in the cold when it comes to postwar Syria. China has much to gain from the U.S. withdrawal and seems to be wasting no time securing its economic, counterterrorism and image-building interests in Syria. China’s involvement in Syria is emblematic of its changing foreign policy under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, which now involves aggressively filling the gaps left behind by a retrenching United States. China’s forward-leaning posture in Syria is also related to its desire to be taken as a more serious player in global counterterrorism circles, which is driven in part by its domestic agenda. The recent disturbing reports outlining the magnitude of “re-education” camps in Xinjian province, in which millions of Uighurs and other Muslim-minority populations are currently being detained, illustrate the government’s commitment to the “One China” policy and to cracking down on the “three evils”: terrorism, separatism and religious extremism.
Since the start of the Syrian civil war, Beijing has emphasized the need for a political solution that respects Damascus’ sovereignty. Its policy reflects the extreme pragmatism of its bilateral dealings with other regimes in the Middle East. China has demonstrated that it is committed to protecting authoritarian leaders by emphasizing the importance of sovereignty, with no concerns about liberal democracy or human rights. And it stands to benefit from this policy, with access to new development projects and a free hand to conduct counterterrorism operations against Uighur militants.
China aims to fill a practical vacuum of influence that the United States and U.S.-led institutions have neglected. Building and leading institutions like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank puts Beijing at the forefront of an alternative multilateralism to that of NATO and the International Monetary Fund.
The impending U.S. withdrawal from Syria fits nicely into Beijing’s narrative that U.S. policy is not the only recipe for success. The opening left by the U.S. withdrawal will allow Beijing to fold yet another state outside its traditional sphere of influence into its economic and security paradigm, while simultaneously expanding its own role in making counterterrorism a major pillar in its foreign policy agenda.