China and Rebuilding Syria: War, Opportunity, and Risk

Dr. Scott MacDonald's picture

Syria’s civil war has been highly destructive. Basic infrastructure in much of the country has been destroyed, cities have been leveled, and huge populations displaced. However, the war is winding down, leaving the autocratic al-Assad regime, backed by Russia and Iran, in power. While the political situation is being sorted out, China is quietly emerging as an important player in what comes next, the estimated USD $200 billion reconstruction of Syria.

The Chinese gambit is to upgrade the Lebanese port of Tripoli, only 35 kilometers from the Syrian border. The heavily indebted Lebanese government is in dire need of foreign investment to improve its own infrastructure and making Tripoli a logistics hub for Syrian infrastructure has economic and strategic value for both Beirut and Beijing. While avoiding becoming an active military force in Damascus, China has worked hard to cultivate the al-Assad regime to create new market opportunities (important at a time when the Sino-American trade war rages and the potential for trade disputes with Europe and Brazil exist) and to advance its Belt and Road Initiative to integrate Eurasia into one massive trade zone. Engaging China makes considerable sense for Syria. The al-Assad regime’s relations with Europe and the United States are strained, oil-rich Gulf countries are considered unfriendly (as they backed anti-Assad forces), and Russia and Iran face sanction pressures. That leaves China, with skilled companies, development loans, and a willingness to work with repressive states as an ideal business partner. Although Chinese companies are interested in making business work in Syria and neighboring Lebanon, they have also become more cautious about investment risks. Security remains an issue in both Middle Eastern countries and infrastructure systems in both badly need upgrades. Still, while there are risks and rewards, the latter now seemingly draws more attention from Chinese companies.