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Syria lures, but will Beijing bite?


Mohammed Jarah and Ahmad Bustati’s warehouse in Damascus symbolized China’s emergence as the largest supplier of industrial and consumer goods to Syria on the eve of the Syrian civil war. The dilapidated warehouse was stocked with everything from Chinese laser cutting machines to plastic toys for children.

A decade of fighting dashed the two Syrian entrepreneurs’ hopes. However, things seem to be looking up for businessmen like Jarah and Bustati with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad having gained the upper hand in the war and China seeing longer-term economic potential in Syria as a regional node for the Belt and Road Initiative.

Syrian officials have sought to drive home China’s competitive advantages and perceived interest in taking a lead in the reconstruction of their country. “The Silk Road is not a silk road if it does not pass through Syria, Iraq and Iran,” said Buthaina Shaaban, Bashar al-Assad’s media adviser, referring to the BRI.

Chinese access to the Syrian Mediterranean Sea ports of Tartus and Latakia is an attractive prospect for China’s multi-billion-dollar infrastructure, telecommunications and energy-driven initiative that seeks to link Eurasia to the People’s Republic. It would complement Beijing’s footholds in Greece’s Piraeus and the Israeli harbors of Haifa and Ashdod and echo Syria’s key position on the ancient Silk Road.

Closely connected to Chinese interest in Syrian ports is the exploration by China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd (CHEC) of the possible upgrading of the deep seaport of Tripoli, Lebanon to allow it to accommodate larger vessels. In contrast to Syrian ports, Tripoli would grant China greater freedom of action because it would not have to share control with Russia. Together with Syrian ports, Tripoli would serve as an alternative to passage through the Suez Canal.

Russia appeared to be anticipating potential Chinese moves when it last year negotiated with the Assad government an extension of its access to military bases including what it describes as a “logistics support facility of the Russian navy” in Tartus.

In the absence of making the agreement public, it remained unclear what Russian intentions were. However, modernization of Tartus for military purposes that would guarantee Russia a role in control of the Eastern Mediterranean would have to involve upgrading it to be able to accommodate all types of vessels, including aircraft carriers.

In a further move, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his foreign and defense ministries in May to reach agreement with Syria on an additional expansion of a 2015 accord that governs Russia’s naval presence in Tartus and allows the Russian navy to base up to 11 ships in the port for 49 years. Putin wants the life of the agreement to be extended by an additional 25 years.

“From the coast of Syria, there is an opportunity to control not only the eastern part, but the entire Mediterranean Sea,” said Captain 1st Rank Anatoly Ivanov, a Moscow-based naval expert.

“The United States has in the Mediterranean Sea not only the ships of its Sixth Fleet, but also an extensive ship repair base and training centers of the Navy. For Russia, the Mediterranean Sea is much closer not only geographically, but also geopolitically. Therefore, to use the opportunity to establish (itself) more densely in Syria seems to be a reasonable measure.”



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