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As the US withdraws from Syria, China may boost its influence in the country

Key Points
  • U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria last December, claiming that the extremist group Islamic State had been defeated.
  • Beijing sees the situation in Syria as an opportunity to benefit economically, expand its influence in the Middle East and even boost its globe-spanning Belt and Road infrastructure investment initiative.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem (L) is welcomed by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi before a meeting in Beijing on December 24, 2015.
Wang Zhao | AFP | Getty Images

As U.S. troops withdraw from Syria, another country may be stepping up its presence in the war torn nation: China.

Beijing sees the situation in Syria as an opportunity to benefit economically, expand its influence in the Middle East and even boost its globe-spanning Belt and Road infrastructure investment initiative.

"As the U.S. is withdrawing its troops, the EU and U.S. have shown little interest in supporting Assad and leading the efforts of reconstructing Syria. China is facing little competition in Syria to realize its plans, " said Mollie Saltskog, an analyst at security intelligence firm The Soufan Group.

U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly ordered the withdrawal of 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria last December, saying the extremist group Islamic State had been defeated — the "only reason" he's wanted troops in the country. As the American forces withdraw, the spotlight has turned to the other nations with strategic interests in Syria's ongoing civil war.

It serves (China's) interest to first enter Syria economically, and be seen as contributing to the overall economy.
Bonnie Glaser
Center for Strategic and International Studies

While experts and lawmakers suggest the U.S. drawdown may strengthen the hands of Russia and Iran, Syrian President Bashar Assad's partners, others have highlighted China's potential role in coming years.

That is, with diminishing U.S. influence in the region, China is presented with an opportunity to increase its economic presence in Syria, Saltskog said.

A $250 billion investment opportunity

According to UN estimates, rebuilding Syria from its years of civil war will reportedly cost about $250 billion.

As Assad's administration faces growing economic pressure from U.S. sanctions and the war, it is likely to look for even more support — and China is poised to lend a hand.

The world's second-largest economy is already vying to take the lead in post-war reconstruction even before the conflict has ended. At the 2017 Trade Fair on Syrian Reconstruction Projects in Beijing, the nation pledged $2 billion to establish an industrial park in Syria.

Syrians restore a shop in the Bab al-Nasr area in old city of Aleppo on April 22, 2018.
George Ourfalian | AFP | Getty Images

Chinese auto companies Geely and Changan have reportedly partnered with Syrian car manufacturer Mallouk & Co, and its manufacturing plant in Homs is set to produce both brands of cars.

"It serves (China's) interest to first enter Syria economically, and be seen as contributing to the overall economy, " said Bonnie Glaser, a senior Asia advisor at a Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"This can create greater, sort of more positive sentiments and attitudes toward China. Ultimately, that could translate to more Chinese influence in the region," she added.

On top of that, Beijing is likely to leverage a role in Syria's reconstruction to advance its Belt and Road Initiative, Saltskog said.

Syria could become a crucial player in the initiative — a multi-billion dollar investment scheme that aims to create a vast global infrastructure network connected to China.

For one, Syria's Tartus port is a likely point of interest to China, experts said. In fact, a 2018 statement from the Chinese embassy in Damascus affirmed the importance of the port for economic development.

The consequences of taking Chinese money will be an issue to deal with further down the line.
Mollie Saltskog
The Soufan Group

Critics have referred to the Belt and Road as a "debt trap," calling it a means to spread Chinese influence, but China is essentially the "only viable option" remaining for Assad, Saltskog said.

Russia and Iran have continually supported the Assad regime, which has led to international pressure on Moscow and Tehran. Trump, in a televised speech last year, accused both countries of "supporting, equipping and financing the criminal Assad regime."

And, with U.S. sanctions in place on both Iran and Russia, both countries may not want to commit more funds to reconstruct Syria. That leaves Assad with very few options apart from China, Saltskog said.

"The consequences of taking Chinese money will be an issue to deal with further down the line," she added.