China opened its second summit on the Belt and Road Initiative on Friday. President Xi Jinping praised the initiative as green and sustainable, saying it would result in “high quality” growth for countries involved, according to reports. Syria wants to play a role in the Initiative, by which China hopes to link Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Syrian government Presidential advisor Bouthaina Shaaban said that China’s invitation to Syria to participate in the summit was a challenge to the US and the West.
“The Silk Road is not a silk road if it does not pass through Syria, Iraq and Iran,” said Shaaban on Al-Mayadeen TV this Thursday. The Syrian regime, of which Shaaban is a key member, fought an eight year war against rebels, which has now largely ended. Turkey controls part of northern Syria and the Syrian Democratic Forces control eastern Syria while the regime runs the center of the country today.
By taking part in the Belt and Road summit Syria is signaling how important it sees trade after the civil war has ended and in the post-ISIS era. ISIS was largely defeated by the SDF with support from the US-led Coalition in late March. Syria wants to rekindle its economy by connecting it to Iran and Russia. It also wants to be linked to Iraq to form a kind of Iranian corridor of influence that will stretch across Iraq into Syria and Lebanon. (Israel has warned about this increasing Iranian influence for several years now.) For Syria, therefore, the Belt and Road Initiative is an opportunity to strengthen its geopolitical position.
Shaaban gave a second speech on Friday that further explained Syria’s interest in China’s plans. She said that the US and Western powers were carrying out an economic war on Syria and that the Belt and Road could help Syria get around that. “Shaaban stressed that the initiative of the Belt and Road is very important to confront Western hegemony,” according to Syria’s state SANA media. It will help stop “colonialism” and division of the Middle East, she claimed.
She claimed that the Belt and Road concept illustrated that “humanity is one” and that Syria agrees with this concept of “one humanity with equal respect.” The summit in China was attended by heads of state of 37 countries according to SANA and 150 ministers from other countries attended.
Israel is also important to the Belt and Road initiative. China and Israel are discussing free trade deals, an issue Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pushed, and China has sought investment at Israel’s port of Haifa and in Ashdod. The Haifa port deal is currently mired in controversy, due to multiple security concerns over Chinese use of the port.