Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Syria's "Four Seas" Strategy and China

What has gone unmentioned in the current year of Syria-bashing is the regional economic strategy proposed by Bashar al-Assad in 2009.  Known as the 'Four Seas" strategy, it called for Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran to unite in a bloc that would serve as a global crossroads for trade, connecting the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, and the Persian Gulf.  Assad announced this ambitious plan with Turkish President Gul in a joint press conference in Ankara in May 2009, stating "Once we link these four seas, we become the compulsory intersection of the whole world in investment, transport and more.”

Between that time and the beginning of the Syrian protests in Spring 2011, Assad made a number of initial moves to reify his new strategy.  At the heart of the arrangement is the Syria-Turkey relationship, and energy links like the Arab Gas Pipeline (AGP).  The AGP connects Egypt to Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, but in 2009 Syria and Turkey agreed to a 62 km pipeline extension to reach Turkey, to be completed by 2011, as well as an integration of their respective electricity grids.  In the short term, this would supply much needed energy to northern Syria, but in the long term (especially as more of the Iraqi energy sector comes back online) the pipeline would allow for Middle Eastern supplies to be exported overland through Turkey to Europe.  In the same vein, Assad visited Azerbaijan in 2009, the first visit to Baku from a Syrian President since the Azeris received independence from the Soviets in 1991.  On his visit, Assad signed 19 economic and political agreements with Azerbaijan, most importantly a deal to import one billion cubic meters of Azeri gas every year.

Perhaps the biggest supporter of Assad's regional strategy was Beijing, where the Communist Party called Syria "ning jiu li" or cohesive force.  Beijing saw a possible cooperation in their foreign policy, increasingly looking west towards Europe, and Syria's "four seas" mindset.  Starting with Assad's visit to Beijing in July 2004, the Chinese-Syria economic relationship began to blossom, and by 2008 China was Syria's largest supplier of imported goods.  Chinese energy companies have also invested hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade Syria's energy infrastructure, and have entered into joint exploration deals with Syrian oil exploration companies.  Another large development is "China City", a large, popular industrial center in the Adra Free Trade Zone, located 25 km northeast of Damascus.  China City was established by wealthy entrepreneurs, and its products--everything from office to factory equipment--are increasingly popular with Middle East Businessmen, especially from Iraq.

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