A New Order in West Asia: The Case of China’s Strategic Presence in Syria – Modern Diplomacy

Unanimity on a new American century had gone unchecked for a decade. The warhawk John Bolton lambasted Xi’s authoritarianism, claiming the new crackdown has made it practically hard for the CIA to keep agents in China.
Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) has evolved enormously since its inception. Today, multipolarity has developed, promising long-term progress for everyone who follow its norms. And Syria is one among them, having lately returned to world prominence after defeating a decade-long military offensive by the traditional unipolar actors.
In spite of this, unlawful US sanctions continue to harm the hungry, impede the rehabilitation of essential infrastructure and access to clean water, and restrict the livelihood of millions in Syria.
“We welcome Syria’s involvement in the Belt and Road Initiative and the Global Development Initiative,” stated Xi Jinping to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad on November 5.
In July 2021, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with the Arab League’s head to discuss Syria’s return to the fold. A four-point plan to end Syria’s multi-faceted crisis was signed by China at the end of the tour, which coincided with Assad’s re-election.
Surrounded by western-backed separatist movements, Syria reiterated its support for China’s territorial integrity. In 2018, China gave Syria $28 billion, and in September 2019, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi proposed China-Iraq oil for rebuilding and greater BRI integration.
Events orchestrated by foreign forces halted this progress. Protests swiftly overthrew Abdul Mahdi’s administration and the oil-for-reconstruction scheme. In recent months, Iraq has rekindled this endeavor, but progress has been modest.
These projects are currently mostly channeled through the 25-year Comprehensive Strategic Partnership deal between China and Iran in March 2021. This might open the way for future rail and energy lines connecting Iran with Iraq and Syria.
At the first formal BRI meeting in April 2019, President Assad stated: “The Silk Route (Belt and Road Initiative) crossing through Syria is a foregone conclusion when this infrastructure is constructed, since it is not a road you can merely put on a map.”
China and Syria are now staying quiet on specifics. Assad’s wish list may be deduced from his previous strategic vision for Syria. Assad’s Five Seas Strategy, which he pushed from 2004 to 2011, has gone after the US began attacking Syria.
The “Five Seas Strategy” includes building rail, roads, and energy systems to connect Syria to the Mediterranean, Persian Gulf, Black, Red, and Caspian Seas. The project is a logical link that connects Mackinder’s world island’s states. This initiative was “the most significant thing” Assad has ever done, he claimed in 2009.
Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon were among the countries Assad led delegations to sign agreements with in 2011. President Qaddafi of Libya and a coalition of nations including Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt were building the Great Man-Made River at the time.
We can’t comprehend why Qaddafi was killed, why Sudan was partitioned in 2009, or why the US is presently financing a regime change in Ethiopia until we grasp this tremendous, game-changing strategic paradigm. Diplomatic confidentiality between China and West Asia is so essential in the post-regime transition situation.
Over the last decade, BRI-compliant initiatives throughout West Asia and Africa have been sabotaged in various ways. This has been a pattern. Neither Assad nor the Chinese want to go back to that.
The Arab League re-admitted Syria on November 23, revealing the substance of this hidden diplomacy. They have proved that they are prepared to accept their humiliation, acknowledge Assad’s legitimacy, and adjust to the new Middle Eastern powers of China and Russia: the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Unlike decades of US promises that consider Arab participation as disposable short-term interests, the China-Russia cooperation provides genuine, demonstrable advantages for everybody.
The BRI now includes 17 Arab and 46 African countries, while the US has spent the last decade sanctioning and fining those who do not accept its global hegemony. Faced with a possible solution to its current economic problems and currency fluctuations, Turkey has turned to China for help.
Buying ISIS-controlled oil, sending extremist fighters to the region, and receiving arms from Saudi Arabia and Qatar were all known methods of supporting ISIS and Al Qaeda operations in Iraq and Syria. The CIA’s funding has dwindled in recent months, leaving ISIS with little else to work with.
Though US President Joe Biden reiterated US military backing for the Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), the Kurds’ hand has been overplayed. Many people now realize that the Kurds have been tricked into acting as ISIS’ counter-gang, and that promises of a Kurdish state are as unreal as Assad’s demise. For a long time, it was evident that Syria’s only hope for survival was Russia’s military assistance and China’s BRI, both of which need Turkey to preserve Syria’s sovereignty.
This new reality and the impending collapse of the old unipolar order in West Asia give reason to believe that the region, or at least a significant portion of it, is already locked in and counting on the upcoming development and connectivity boom.
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Mohamad Zreik is an independent researcher, doctor of international relations. His areas of research interests are related to the Foreign Policy of China, Belt and Road Initiative, Middle Eastern Studies, China-Arab relations, East Asian Affairs, Geopolitics of Eurasia, and Political Economy. Mohamad has many studies and articles published in high ranked journals and well-known international newspapers. His writings have been translated into many languages, including French, Arabic, Spanish, German, Albanian, Russian, Bosnian, Bulgarian, etc.
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Since the emergence of COVID-19, healthcare cooperation and solidarity in the battle against the pandemic has been critical in minimizing the problem. As a result, collaboration on health concerns has increased overall diplomatic support among states.
Following the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China faced a critical crisis at home as well as international pressure in the form of charges that it bungled the pandemic’s early phases. Some lawmakers in the United States have proposed a conspiracy theory about the virus’s origins. Then-US President Donald Trump constantly blamed China for the virus’s spread, even using the phrase “Chinese Virus” in public speeches, giving the appearance that China was a danger to the globe. This combative stance harmed diplomatic ties between the United States and China. Beijing, on the other hand, wants to utilize vaccine diplomacy to promote its position as a responsible global health player. China has engaged in health and vaccine diplomacy all around the globe, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. In 2020, China will send physicians, nurses, and researchers to Abu Dhabi for medical conferences. In August of that year, China constructed a laboratory in Baghdad, Iraq, with the assistance of Chinese scientists, to assist the nation in confirmed cases during the outbreak of COVID-19. Furthermore, China sent test kits and ventilators to both Palestine and Algeria. Furthermore, China localized vaccine manufacturing with Egypt, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Turkey, while Iran and Palestine depended solely on Chinese vaccinations to combat the epidemic. China’s early vaccination gifts coincided with the Trump administration’s relative disengagement from the international scene. In the early stages of the epidemic, China was the only vaccine provider for several nations. China has previously promised to send 1 billion Covid19 vaccine shots to African nations by 2021. China has also donated 141 million vaccine doses to the Asia-Pacific area, making Africa and the Asia-Pacific the two most important Chinese vaccine recipient regions. The majority of these Chinese vaccine supplies were obtained via bilateral sales or contributions.
China’s Covid19 Vaccine Donations by regions
Most of the nations that got the vaccine in Asia and Africa were already members of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China’s vaccination diplomacy, therefore, emphasised and reaffirmed the BRI’s value in nations strategically crucial to Beijing. For example, in Egypt, where the Suez Canal serves as a vital strategic crossroads to Europe, China not only donated vaccinations but also constructed a plant to produce Chinese vaccines in Egypt. This will help Egyptian partners to acquire clout and expand their exports to other African countries. However, the efficacy and safety of Chinese vaccinations have remained a major issue across the MENA area. Many nations have a negative impression of Chinese goods, which has influenced public faith in the effectiveness of Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines. In Egypt, the public has been wary about Chinese vaccinations while putting their faith in Western vaccines like as AstraZeneca. This is due, in part, to the seeming openness of scientific research in the West, as opposed to more opaque procedures in China. In 2021, Saudi Arabia established specific requirements for tourists to receive at least one dosage of the Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson vaccinations, or at least two booster doses of Sinovac and Sinopharm, in order to enter the country. Despite the fact that many nations in the area used Chinese vaccines, favourable attitudes toward Chinese vaccines waned as Western alternatives became accessible. Since the middle of 2021, Chinese vaccines have suffered a major drop in worldwide demand, with nations such as Brazil and Indonesia refusing to renew their contracts. This reduction corresponded with the lifting of limitations on Indian vaccinations, as well as the increasing manufacturing of additional vaccines by Moderna and Pfizer in the second half of 2021. Following a delayed start, the United States became the world’s greatest contributor to vaccinations in 2021. It has sent about 114 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to around 80 poor nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. According to UNICEF figures, China is the second-largest provider, with 34 million doses. According to US State Department statistics, the western hemisphere got the most vaccination, with 40 million doses, followed by Sub-Saharan Africa, which received 29 million. The Middle East and North Africa area got just 4 million doses of donated US vaccinations, making it one of the locations with the fewest vaccine recipients.
US Vaccine Donations by Region
Despite the fact that the United States joined the vaccine diplomacy race later, Chinese vaccine diplomacy has encountered significant challenges as a result of the proliferation of the highly transmissible Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5. Even when taken as a booster dose, Chinese vaccinations were less effective against the new subvariant. Following that, Sinopharm and Sinovac shipped a total of 6.78 million doses in April, a decrease of 97% from the high in September 2021. Western vaccinations like Pfizer and Moderna are based on newer mRNA technology that is not yet accessible in China, and both are more effective against the virus in single doses than the Chinese vaccine.
China and US Vaccine Visions of Vaccine Diplomacy
In his statement at the opening ceremony of the 73rd World Health Assembly online conference in September, Chinese President Xi Jinping mentioned “community of health and shared future for humanity.” His vision emphasised the need of bolstering global efforts to combat the epidemic, and he positioned China as a responsible participant in the global health sector. China’s diplomacy during the epidemic, as well as its ambition in defining the global health agenda, benefit the Chinese political system, and Chinese authorities and media sources have defended the Chinese model in dealing with the health crisis as an alternative to Western powers. China, through applying the concept of “shared community,” is prioritising multilateral global efforts.
Analysts suggest, however, that China is using vaccine diplomacy to acquire power in order to change the geopolitical environment to its advantage. In 2020, when many poor nations were in desperate need of vaccines, China was the greatest contributor of vaccine doses. In the long term, China’s vaccine diplomacy is expanding its soft power, notably in the MENA area. Vaccine diplomacy is forming a new kind of Chinese diplomacy in  poor countries, in which health cooperation is exploited to achieve diplomatic aims.
Furthermore, the lack of the United States’ engagement in this sector within the MENA region has allowed China greater legitimacy to present itself as a worldwide supplier of public goods and therefore strengthened its position in the global health system. Beijing won this round of public diplomacy with swift action and specific attention to nations ignored by Washington, giving it more confidence in future endeavors. In contrast, the United States’ inadequate management of the pandemic crisis at home exposed flaws in its domestic system and weakened its image as the world’s leader, fuelling disillusionment with the American model of capitalism and democracy. The United States efforts in vaccine contributions and supply beginning in 2021 demonstrate that the Biden administration is attempting to increase its position and establish its leadership over the pandemic response, which has been challenged by China, particularly during Trump’s tenure. Trump’s unwillingness to take real efforts to control the virus at home, as well as his decision to resign from the World Health Organization, saying that it was biased against China, all weakened the US’ global leadership position.
President Joe Biden’s intentions for the epidemic have been substantially different since taking office. His proposals for vaccine distribution and donation to poorer nations demonstrate a readiness to participate in international collaboration to halt the spread of the epidemic and guarantee the United States’ worldwide involvement in combating the virus. Biden has shown the willingness of the United States to play an effective role in vaccine distribution, stating that “America will be the arsenal of vaccinations in the worldwide battle against the pandemic, just as America was the arsenal of democracy in World War II.” The Biden administration’s commitment to vaccine distribution was a positive step toward securing American leadership in global public health, and it helped to revitalize the country’s influence in the MENA region and internationally. The status of China as a growing power has shifted dramatically in the international order dominated by the United States. Indeed, the COVID-19 issue has exacerbated the rivalry between the two nations. Because the future international order will no longer be defined by a single state, it will be impossible for a single country to lead it. China has emerged as a significant player as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic; vaccine diplomacy has been beneficial in improving China’s ties with many impoverished nations. This circumstance puts China in a good position to seek global leadership, but the extent to which it participates will be important in the long run.
Theoretically, there should be no inherent conflict in the Middle East between the United States and China. Both are concerned with stability and are emotionally engaged in the status quo. The Chinese strategy in the MENA area is more concerned with economic and development integration than with opposing other countries’ interests. In terms of infrastructure and technology, China is a regional powerhouse. The massive expansion of China’s influence in many fields, including as infrastructure, technology, renewable energy, and finance, has contributed to increased foreign direct investment and job creation in developing nations, something the United States and Western powers have failed to do. China has significant ties with the majority of the MENA region’s nations. Of course, China’s stance in the area suits its interests – to maintain a stable domestic environment via economic cooperation – but generally, China’s involvement with the region has been successful owing to the continuous decline of the United States’ influence in the region. While the two states compete for vaccine distribution, Chinese diplomacy will remain focused on prioritising its interests without getting entangled in regional concerns that may lead to a war with the US. Finally, neither the United States nor China have been particularly effective in containing the COVID-19 epidemic. Their domestic and global policies emphasise their disparate ideals and political systems. As a result of the epidemic, their rivalry has become more intense.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi hit all the right cords when he spoke virtually with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal Bin Farhan, at a meeting of the China-Saudi Arabia High-Level Joint Committee last month.
Mr. Wang told Mr. Bin Farhan: “China attaches great importance to the development of China-Saudi Arabia relations and puts Saudi Arabia at a priority position in China’s overall diplomacy, its diplomacy with the Middle East region in particular.”
Mr. Wang’s statement came amid Saudi reports, yet to be confirmed by China, of a pending visit by President Xi Jinping to the kingdom before the end of the year.
Mr. Xi will likely meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at a Group of 20 summit in Bali later this month.
The Saudi reports did not mention the Chinese leader stopping in other countries, particularly Iran.
The reports’ focus on the kingdom and Mr. Wang’s remarks boosted Saudi hopes that Beijing may abandon its balancing act between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic republic.
“This statement has been what the Saudis sought for at least ten years. The Saudi leadership quietly but persistently urged Beijing to decide which ally was more important — Riyadh or its biggest rival Iran,” said Steve Rodan, author of the China in the Middle East newsletter.
That may be jumping to conclusions.
The timing of a possible Xi visit to exploit strains in Saudi-US relations makes perfect sense.
However, the optics of Mr. Xi bypassing Iran because of sustained anti-government protests may distort the reality of a continued Chinese effort to strike a balance in its regional relationships.
If anything,  US and European sanctions against Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine have magnified Iran’s importance as China, and Central Asian, and Caucasian nations put flesh on efforts to create a viable transport corridor to Europe that circumvents Russian territory.
Moreover, the potential timing of a Xi visit also takes on added significance after Saudi Arabia shared intelligence with the United States that warned of an imminent Iranian attack on targets in the kingdom and predominantly Kurdish northern Iraq.
In response, the US and other Gulf countries have raised the level of alert for their military forces.
Saudi officials said the attacks would bolster Iran’s contention that the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel had instigated the more than six-week-long protests that have rattled the regime in Tehran.
Last month, Iran said it had arrested nine European nationals for their alleged role in the protests.
Iranian security forces have cracked down on protesters most brutally in the Kurdish and Baloch provinces of the countries where ethnic tensions have long simmered and alleged past foreign support hoped to spark unrest that would destabilize the regime.
In the past two months, Iran has launched missile and drone attacks on Iranian Kurdish targets in northern Iraq. In one instance, a US warplane downed an Iranian projectile headed toward the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil.
In September, Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, warned Saudi Arabia to rein in coverage of the protests by a Saudi-backed, London-based, Farsi-language satellite news channel, Iran International, which is widely followed in Iran.
Iran International broadcasts on its television shows and social media handles videos of Iranian protests and the crackdown by security forces that have so far failed to quell the unrest.
Iran has demanded, even before the eruption of the protests, that Saudi Arabia close down Iran International.
“I warn the Saudi regime to control your media, or the smoke will go in your eyes,” Mr.  Salami said as he attended military drills in Iran’s East Azerbaijan province.
The commander added, “this is our last warning because you are interfering in our internal affairs through these media. You are involved in this matter and know that you are vulnerable.”
Mr. Salami also intended to dissuade Saudi Arabia from tightening its security ties with Israel.
Saudi Arabia has refused to follow the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco in formally recognizing Israel as long as the Palestinian problem is not resolved but has forged close informal relations with the Jewish state.
“You are relying on an Israel which is collapsing, and this will be the end of your era,” Mr. Salami thundered.
Mr. Salami’s warning contrasted starkly with comments the same week by a top advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ali Akbar Velayati. Mr. Velayati called for the reopening of embassies to facilitate a rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh.
“We are neighbours of Saudi Arabia, and we must coexist. The embassies of the two countries should reopen to solve our problems in a better way,” Mr. Velayati said.
Saudi Arabia and Iran closed their embassies in each other’s capital after a mob ransacked the kingdom’s mission in Tehran in protest against the execution of a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric.
Beyond signalling potential splits in the regime, Mr. Velayati’s remarks appeared designed to salvage Iraqi-sponsored efforts to manage deep-seated Saudi-Iranian differences encouraged by both China and the United States.
Concern that Iran could attack Saudi Arabia is, at least partly, grounded in an assumed Iranian belief that the US-Saudi rift means that the United States may not be willing to defend the kingdom.
Relations became even more strained after the kingdom, in the wake of US President Joe Biden’s pilgrimage in July to Saudi Arabia, backed a cut rather than an increase in OPEC+ oil production.
The strains created an opportunity for China, which has so far gone out of its way to remain aloof from the Middle East myriad conflicts.
China’s ability to do so may be shrinking.
Mr. Xi is certain to want to exploit the most recent spat in US-Saudi relations. His problem is that the spat highlights the opportunity and the minefield the Chinese leader has to navigate.
If experience is anything to go by, Mr. Xi risks becoming the latest leader to be sucked into Middle Eastern conflicts, irrespective of whether they wanted to get involved.
Saudi Arabia has informed the United States of alleged imminent attack from Iran, several Western media outlets reported.
“Saudi Arabia has shared intelligence with the U.S. warning of an imminent attack from Iran on targets in the kingdom, putting the American military and others in the Middle East on an elevated alert level, said Saudi and U.S. officials,” the Wall Street Journal claimed.
It added, “In response to the warning, Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and several other neighboring states have raised the level of alert for their military forces, the officials said. They didn’t provide more details on the Saudi intelligence.”
Reuters also reported that the U.S. has received intelligence from Saudi Arabia warning of an attack from Iran. It said the U.S. is concerned about these alleged threats from Iran against Saudi Arabia.
“We are concerned about the threat picture, and we remain in constant contact through military and intelligence channels with the Saudis,” said a spokesperson from the U.S. National Security Council, according to Reuters. “We will not hesitate to act in the defense of our interests and partners in the region.”
Tensions have been on the rise between Tehran and Riyadh over the last few weeks. And Iran has warned Saudi Arabia against interfering in Iran’s internal affairs amid a wave of unrest that erupted after the death of Mahsa Amini, a young girl who fainted in police custody on September 13 and died three days later in hospital.
But Iran didn’t say it will attack Saudi Arabia.
The chief of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), General Hossein Salami has warned the United States and its regional allies against exacerbating the unrest in Iran.
Speaking on the sideline of a recent IRGC military exercise on the border with the South Caucasus region, General Salami said Saudi Arabia is playing media games with the Iranian youth. “We are warning them in this regard,” he said, according to state news agency IRNA.
“They are openly seeking to provoke our youth. We advise them to exert control over these media outlets. Otherwise, they will pay the price,” he said.
General Salami then directly addressed the Saudis and said, “Note that you have entered this field and know that you are vulnerable. You better be careful.”
In another speech delivered at the funeral ceremony for the victims of the Daesh-claimed attack in Shiraz, General Salami said that the Biden administration, together with its allies in the region, stand behind the unrest.
Addressing Iranian youth, the general said Biden isn’t directly ordering Iranian youth to take to the streets. Instead, he is using complex ways to instigate unrest in Iran, including through the media, the general added. Salami added the unrest in Iran was planned in American and Israeli think tanks.
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