WASHINGTON - Syria, a country torn by civil war, recently joined China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a move analysts say reflects China's growing interest in the Middle East.
Through BRI, China has been investing in and building infrastructure on several continents to realize its vision of land and sea trade routes linking Asia to the rest of the world.
By staking its claim in Syria, experts contend, China can increase its influence in the Middle East, realize its goal of reestablishing its ancient Silk Road trade route and perhaps gain additional energy sources.
The agreement between China and Syria, finalized January 12 in a ceremony in Damascus, 'would help [Syrian President Bashar] Assad to break out of its diplomatic isolation. It would help Assad get more investments, said Ibrahim Al-Assil, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
China's Middle East interests
Syria's admission to BRI is part of a larger Chinese strategy to ascertain influence in the Middle East, experts say.
'Syria's location offers a huge leverage for China. When any international player, if they have a leverage in Syria first, they can get some leverage over so many of its neighbors. We're talking about Turkey which is important for China. We're talking about Iraq, where more than 10% of China's oil comes from. We're talking about Israel. We're talking about Jordan. We're also talking about some global powers in Syria like Russia and the United States. So it's more of geo-economic interests than just the pure economic interests for China to increase its investments in Syria,' Al-Assil told VOA.
FILE - Syria's Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, right, receives his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi at the airport in the capital Damascus, July 17, 2021.
As of December, 17 countries in the Middle East and North Africa have joined the BRI. Experts say the inclusion of the Middle East in the initiative is rooted in Chinese history and is a symbolic move for Beijing.
'China is trying to reconstitute the ancient Silk Road, and Syria was part of the Silk Road, so that was something that was emphasized in the announcement that China had with Syria,' David Sacks, research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told VOA.
There are also economic interests.
'China has become a net importer of energy in 1993, and in 2017, it became the largest crude oil importer in the world, and almost half of that oil, 47% to 48%, comes from the Middle East. And that's why the Middle East is going to just rise in significance in the next decade for China,' Al-Assil said.
Filling the US gaps
Syria's participation would help China's Middle Eastern strategy as the United States leaves a smaller footprint in the region. In December, the U.S. ended its combat mission in Iraq and transitioned to an 'advise, assist and enable' role for Iraqi forces.
'For China to have more leverage in the region, it needs to look at where the U.S. is disengaging and try to increase its diplomatic presence and economic presence in those gaps, or those subregions of the Middle East, and that's where Syria comes in,' Al-Assil told VOA.
The diplomatic relationship between Beijing and Damascus dates to 1956, and ties between the two countries continued during the Syrian civil war.
China, along with Russia, has repeatedly exercised its permanent veto power on the U.N. Security Council to block resolutions imposing sanctions on the Syrian government concerning the use of chemical weapons.
In 2016, the Chinese military agreed to support the Assad government with training and humanitarian assistance, according to China's state-run Xinhua News Agency.
Syria and China also share intelligence because of China's fears of radicalized Muslim Uyghurs from China fighting in Syria.
The inclusion of Syria in BRI 'provides the greatest contribution to the economic reconstruction and social development in Syria,' stated Feng Biao, China's ambassador to Syria, according to Xinhua.
China's risky investment
Any form of Chinese investment in Syria, however, is a risk because of the country's dire financial situation, analysts say.
'I don't think the Chinese will be able to get any real return on any investments inside Syria. The economy is still shattered, the country is fragmented, the corruption is deep within the Syrian state institutions, and that is not going to change anytime soon with the current conditions,' Al-Assil said.
'It seems highly unlikely Syria would be in any position to repay major loans for infrastructure in the future,' Sacks told VOA.
Some analysts say Syria's participation in BRI reveals how China and its longtime ally Russia are showcasing a united foreign policy front. Moscow entered the Syrian conflict in 2015 in support of the Assad regime.
'I don't think that this will force a rethink of U.S. policy towards the country,' Sacks said. 'But clearly what it does show is that China and Russia are increasingly acting in lockstep on the global stage, and that's becoming increasingly clear in Europe, in Central Asia and now in the Middle East as well.'
Others, however, including Al-Assil, say closer ties between China and Syria could create a rift between Beijing and Moscow, referencing the Chinese foreign minister's high-profile visit in July to Syria and Russia's adverse reaction to it.
'The Russian reaction wasn't encouraging because they felt that the regime didn't coordinate with them and that the regime was trying to seek other great power support,' Al-Assil told VOA.
Russian media, Al-Assil added, criticized the Chinese move and emphasized that the future of Assad was linked only to Russia and that 'Russia would have the upper hand.'
Whether it is investing in diplomacy or infrastructure, China is taking a risk in Syria, experts say, but it's all part of Beijing's larger strategic calculus in the region.
VOA's Elizabeth Lee contributed to this report.