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  • Jacob Rosen Koenigsbuch

Who Will Reconstruct War-Torn Syria? China Might Be a Candidate

With the civil war nearing its end, the Assad regime aims to launch international efforts to reconstruct the country. Yet few countries possess the necessary capital, or are willing to spend it on Syria. The one major power who has not involved itself in the war may be up for the task, but it remains to be seen whether Beijing finds it in its interests

SDF Forces in al-Raqqa, in 2017

SDF Forces in al-Raqqa, in 2017 | Photo: Mahmoud Bali/VOA (Wikipedia, public domain)

Unless something truly unexpected happens, it seems safe to assume that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will soon reinstate his rule on most of the territory of Syrian Arab Republic as it existed up to 2011. The country he will govern is shattered and devastated.

Approximately 10 million Syrians have been uprooted from their previous places of residence, out of an estimated population of 23 million before the war. Of those, some 5 million refugees have fled the country, and the rest are internally displaced. Major residential areas are uninhabitable, not to mention the devastated infrastructure and dysfunctional economy. Syria will have to be reconstructed, and President Assad recently announced that this is his top priority. Statements alone, however, cannot pay for roads and buildings.

The question now is who will be willing to finance such a phenomenally expensive undertaking? Interestingly, the main candidate is the one major power which has not been involved in the bloody civil war – China.

Now going for a quarter of a trillion dollars

The estimates for the reconstruction of Syria begin at a "modest" figure of $200 billion, while the pessimistic forecasts place it at US$ 1 trillion. Who can foot this bill, or even part of it? In late July, Russia said that reconstructing Syria should be an issue “above politics”, and asked the international community to pitch in.

It stands to reason that the United States or the European Union will not fund a Syrian "Marshall Plan" - either due to bitter enmity, lack of interest, or sheer desire to let the Russians and the Iranians face the consequences of their protégé’s victory. After the Russian statement, a European diplomat was quoted saying, “At the moment it’s in the EU’s interests to increase pressure on Russia by not putting any money in [Syria]. The fact that the Russians are getting upset shows that the pressure is beginning to tell.”

Russia has invested significant efforts and resources in securing a naval and air foothold on the Mediterranean shore, and certainly cannot currently undertake a project of such magnitude. Its aforementioned appeal to Europe, essentially asking it to foot the bill, says as much. The same goes for Iran, who wishes to establish a permanent presence on Syrian soil, both political and military. Yet despite Tehran’s geopolitical interests, domestic unrest coupled with the consequence of the American withdrawal from the nuclear deal (JCPOA) will not allow it to contribute significantly towards the reconstruction of Syria.

One should point out that in recent years the Syrian regime more or less mortgaged its country to its two main allies, granting them concessions for future mining and transport projects in exchange for their military and political support. Yet taking advantage of those concessions requires investments as well. The Gulf States are also not currently geared or willing to assist Syria. They are busy with revenge and have other more pressing priorities, such as the war in Yemen and their own internal rivalries. Turkey may take unilateral steps to solidify its position in parts of Northern Syria which are currently under its military’s control. It recently announced opening a branch of Harran University in the city of Al-Bab. But Ankara’s activities have nothing to do with reconstructing of Syria for the benefit of the Syrians.

Who, therefore, is able and willing to reconstruct Syria and to help both its leader and his suffering population? At the moment, there are no serious volunteers. At most, several countries may perhaps be willing to fund a housing project or assist in rebuilding a bridge or a hospital. But this will amount to no more than a drop in the sea for Syria and its desperate people.

Beijing to the Rescue?

The only viable candidate who might be interested in reconstructing Syria is China, which may see the benefits of including it in its ambitious economic mega-project, titled "One Belt One Road" (OBOR). This endeavor, which aims to reconstruct the ancient Silk Road from China to Europe (via Iran and Turkey), also has a maritime branch – the Suez Canal. Judging from China's drive in recent years to acquire and build ports in Sri Lanka, Djibouti and Piraeus, one is struck by the fact that it has no "fallback position" for the land route to Europe, in case of a major disruption by Ankara.

One of the alternatives will be to bypass Turkey and continue from Iran to Iraq and then to the Syrian shore. In other words, China will need a port in the Mediterranean which it will be able to access by land as well. Iran is also interested in establishing a land route from Iran to Syria, and here Beijing and Tehran’s interests may align.

Putin (R) and China's President Xi at the Kremlin, in 2015

Putin (R) and China's President Xi at the Kremlin, in 2015 | Photo: (CC BY 4.0)

Considering the immense capital the OBOR project will require - estimated in trillions of US dollars - reconstructing Syria may be a relatively modest investment to ensure China's global needs. Although analysts in the West often find it difficult to understand the Chinese decision-making process and what pertains through the mind of its leaders, Beijing’s actions on the ground and at sea provide some useful clues to its intentions and thinking.

China’s massive investments in Africa are a good demonstration of these intentions, though, as observed by experts, there is some uncertainty about China’s interests in that region. Some believe that China eyes Africa’s oil and minerals, while others argue that China is after the continent’s agricultural riches. Whatever its motivation may be, the scope of these investments is impressive.

Beijing’s maritime policy is another good example. Although most of the international community’s attention is devoted to China's maritime conduct in the Pacific Rim, it is clear that Beijing will have to secure its maritime routes to Africa as well. In other words, a heavy capital investment has to be coupled with strong maritime presence, and vice versa.

Ramifications for Israel

Despite of what was argued above, at the end of the day no one can assess whether China will choose to engage in the reconstructions efforts in Syria. In early July, China’s President Xi Jinping pledged a package of loans for “reviving” the Middle East, totaling US$ 20 billion. He made no specific reference to Syria. However, such a step will cause significant apprehension to actors in the region who are involved and heavily invested in the country.

Russia may not be overly enthusiastic about a Chinese reconstruction project in Syria, but as long as it does not harm its own interests, Moscow may accept or tolerate it. One should remember that Russia will become a major gas supplier to China next year, and their bilateral relations will take on a different shape.

Beijing stepping in may also be good news for Iran, but also bears risks. Tehran does not have the financial means to reconstruct Syria, and will be happy to see another party covering the expenses and contributing to the stabilization of its ally. But China is a very careful and calculated player. After investing a significant amount of money, it will likely do everything in its power to keep Iran in check, in order to avoid any outbreak of hostilities which will endanger its global economic interests.

Finally, Israel naturally has a vested interest in anything happening in its north-east neighbor. What should Israel do if Beijing does indeed decide to enter the fray in Syria? First and foremost, China will decide whether to take this course of action; whether Israel likes or dislikes it, it should prepare for such a scenario.

Deepening the political dialogue with China should be a priority in any case. Israeli diplomacy has found ways to convey its concerns about Syria to Russia, which seems to understand them and take them into consideration. Though we do not fully understand the Chinese decision-making process, we must search every possible avenue and try to apply this approach with Beijing as well.

Because of Israel's significant naval and military presence both in the Red Sea and the East Mediterranean, there might be a basis for a meaningful dialogue in this sphere. Such a dialogue may convince China to do everything required to guarantee its vital economic interests and keep the Iranians in check.

Indeed, it seems that it is high time to start looking at our environs through the Chinese prism.

Jacob Rosen-Koenigsbuch

Jacob Rosen-Koenigsbuch is a senior research fellow at the IPS and a consultant on demographic mapping. He served as Israel's Ambassador to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan between 2006-2009.

(Photo: Oded Raanan)

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