China Supports Syria's Reconstruction, Security Cooperation in Call Between Xi, Assad

China has pledged to support Syria's reconstruction and enhance cooperation in other realms such as security in a phone call between the heads of state of the two nations.

The office of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Friday released a lengthy readout of the leader's conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has maintained close ties to his Syrian counterpart throughout the decade-long civil war there.

The Syrian readout said the discussion focused "on ways to expand the horizons of cooperation" between the two nations as both pledged support for one another's causes.

Assad extolled the 50th anniversary of Beijing receiving China's permanent seat at the United Nations from Taiwan, and condemned "Western campaigns that are trying to hit out at stability in the Southeast Asia region and the South China Sea, because the world today needs peace and development, not tension and threats."

And Xi said China "supports the Syrian efforts for reconstruction and development, welcoming the Syrian side's participation in building the Belt and Road," the name for Beijing's global network of infrastructure and investment projects involving nearly three-quarters of the world's nations.

The Chinese leader also said, "his country supports the struggle of the Syrians in defending the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of their country, and categorically rejects the interference of external forces in Syria's internal affairs, and urges the immediate lifting of unilateral sanctions and the economic blockade on Syria."

He then "expressed China's keenness to enhance cooperation with the Syrian side in the field of security and combating terrorism, and in confronting the coronavirus pandemic," and pledged a new batch of vaccines and medical equipment for the crisis-stricken Arab nation.

Syria, Aleppo, Old, City, reconstruction
Above, workers restore historic buildings in the "Souq al-Hibal" in Syria's northern city of Aleppo on August 29, 2021, in the wake of years of conflict in a decade-long civil war. President Bashar al-Assad has sought to court lucrative Chinese investment for reconstruction to offset the country's ongoing economic crisis. AFP/Getty Images

Much of these sentiments were echoed in a separate readout shared by the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

"I believe that Syria will overcome various risks and challenges and achieve new victories in the struggle to defend independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity," the readout quoted Xi as saying during the phone conversation. "The Syrian people will usher in a better tomorrow."

The Chinese side also cited Assad as saying that "Syria attaches great importance to friendly relations with China, supports the 'Belt and Road' initiative, hopes to expand and deepen cooperation with China, and welcomes Chinese companies to increase investment in Syria."

"Socialism with Chinese characteristics has achieved great success, and Syria is willing to learn from China's relevant concepts and experience," Assad added, according to Beijing's account.

Ten years of war has wreaked havoc on Syria's infrastructure and resulted in the largest displacement of people in the world as millions left their homes to other nations to other parts of the country itself. While the all-out war that first erupted in 2011 between the government and insurgents seeking to oust Assad has since mostly reverted into a lower-level conflict playing out near the country's border regions, instability remains rampant as evidenced by a rare bombing in the capital by rebels last month.

Beyond Damascus, whose core avoided the worst of the war, much of Syria's economic capital Aleppo remains in ruins. Reconstruction efforts have begun, but international sanctions, especially tight restrictions put in place by the United States in response to allegations against Assad of widespread human rights abuses, have proven an obstacle to rebuilding the country.

An ensuing economic crisis fueled by financial instability in neighboring Lebanon and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded Syria's woes.

To offset these challenges, Assad has sought to court lucrative Chinese investment. Syria is located strategically, serving as part of a potential West Asian corridor to both Europe and Africa by land and especially by sea, where the country hosts Mediterranean ports.

The prospect of such collaboration has been the subject of a number of bilateral meetings, the most recent of which took place in July when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited the country as part of a regional tour that also included the North African nations of Egypt and Algeria. In Damascus, Wang met with his Syrian counterpart Faisal al-Mekdad and Assad himself to explore ways in the Belt and Road Initiative may reach Syria.

Wang too promised to "strengthen communication and cooperation with Syria to help the country improve its counter-terrorism capacity" at a time when the country continued to suffer from instability.

Unlike Iran and Russia, which devoted personnel to help defend Assad against rebels and jihadis seeking to overthrow him, the role of China in Syria has largely been limited to an economic and political one.

Beijing and Moscow teamed up 10 years ago in the U.N. Security Council to block international intervention against Damascus after the two powers' abstention earlier that year paved the way for a NATO-led campaign in Libya. Two weeks later, longtime Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi was killed at the hands of opposition fighters, but Assad would live to retake much of his country, albeit one beset to this day by unprecedented hardships.

The U.S. went on to join regional partners in backing a rebellion in Syria anyway but has since switched sides to support a largely Kurdish group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces to fight the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).

And though Assad remains ostracized by the West and even his own Arab League, powers in the region have gradually come to terms with his staying power. Turkey continues to back insurgents and Israel still conducts regular air raids against suspected Iran-linked militias, but Iraq and Lebanon maintain robust ties. Most recently, Jordan, too, has reconnected with its northern neighbor.

Last week, a deal was finalized through which Syria would facilitate the transfer of electricity from Jordan to Lebanon, which continues to deteriorate as a result of political paralysis. An earlier arrangement was also reached for Syria to move Egyptian gas from Jordan to Lebanon.

The climate has also shifted in the Arabian Peninsula, where the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain have already reopened their embassies in Damascus. Increasingly, members of the Arab League have voiced support for Syria's reinstatement to the regional body.

Turkestan, Islamic, Party, Syria
Above, fighters of the Turkestan Islamic Party's Syrian branch are seen riding in vehicles, one bearing the group's flag, ostensibly in Syria, in this clip from an October 10, 2020, promotional video that featured purported footage of Chinese security forces detaining Uyghurs in Xinjiang and concluded with scenes from 9/11. Turkestan Islamic Party Voice of Islam Media Center

China, for its part, has sought to avoid being too closely mired in the tumultuous politics of the region but does have its own interests in Syria's security. Among the most notable of these motivations stems from the presence of the Uyghur militia the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), referred to by much of the international community as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), in the northwestern Idlib region.

Uyghur militants conducted a series of attacks in China's own northwestern Xinjiang region throughout the 1990s and early 2000s with the aim of creating a separatist Islamic state but a severe crackdown by the ruling Communist Party drove rebels into neighboring Afghanistan and, eventually, Syria, where they joined the ongoing civil war.

A spokesperson for TIP's political office recently told Newsweek that the group did not seek to target civilians but would not rule out the use of force against the Chinese government.

Both Damascus and Beijing consider the group they call ETIM to be a terrorist organization, while the U.S. removed ETIM's designation on the Terrorist Exclusion List a year ago. A State Department spokesperson told Newsweek that the two organizations were separate and referred to TIP fighters as "terrorists" but would not comment on whether or not the U.S. was considering officially classifying them as such.

With the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, a direct neighbor of China, Beijing and other regional powers have expressed concern that militants such as TIP or ETIM could take advantage of the turmoil in the now-Taliban-led nation to stage attacks or even join the ranks of the ISIS' own local affiliate.