The 26th New Buds Salon (新芽沙龙) of the Institute of Area Studies, Peking University (PKUIAS) was held on November 3, 2020 in No. 66 Yannanyuan, PKU. Focusing on the theme "Syria's current economic and social conditions," Bashar Kheir, an MPA (Master of Public Administration) graduate from PKU's Institute of South-South Cooperation and Development (ISSCAD), who worked as an HR manager at the Ministry of Administrative Development in Syria, and Asma Katbeh, also an MPA graduate from ISSCAD, who works with Syria's Planning and International Cooperation Commission, gave presentations about the topic from different perspectives.
Kheir stated that after the collapse of the socialist system in the former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries, opening-up measures started in Syria in the 1990s. After 2000, these measures accelerated, and there are many legislative, political and administrative measures that endeavor to open up the Syrian economy and go toward further integration with the global economy. For example, Syria has an initiative to enter the process for joining the Euro zone, launched the social market economy concept in 2005, and established the Working Party on Syria's accession to the WTO in 2010, but the accession of WTO had been disrupted by the war.
In 2016, the impact of the war in Syria, according to the UN statistics, was about 400,000 dead, 6.2 million displaced and about 5.6 million refugees. There are also other refugees, which are not registered by the UN. The unemployment rate was more than 50 percent in 2017. Now, it's worse. The poverty rate in 2018 was more than 82 percent with wages shrinking to $40 monthly in 2020. In comparison, in the period before the war, monthly wages were between $400 and $500. The damage to infrastructure in Syria created a lack of sustained access to health care, education and other services. Consequently, the conflict in Syria remains one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world. The cumulative GDP loss was estimated about $226 billion in 2016, attributed to disrupted economic activity in all sectors. GDP shrank fourfold compared to 2010. Syria also suffered from hyperinflation and stagnation, or "stagflation" — high unemployment accompanied with high levels of inflation and economic recession. The deterioration of economic indicators, especially in the last two years, was affected by illegal bilateral sanctions that have been imposed by the US, especially by the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019, commonly known as the Caesar Act, in addition to other sanctions that have been imposed by the EU and the League of Arab States. GDP annual growth during the war was frustrated, with a little bit of improvement in 2017. But this improvement was crushed by stricter sanctions in place since 2019. There are three central challenges in the reconstruction era of Syria. The first one is economic recovery, especially with unilateral and illegal sanctions that have been imposed on Syria, which is followed by reconstruction and state building, and institutional reform and anticorruption efforts.
Kheir said that the BRI contributes to Syria's reconstruction. He concluded that there are a lot of benefits to accelerate Syrian integration into the BRI. The BRI can help transfer Chinese infrastructure overcapacity to the Middle East, especially to Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, which have problems with their infrastructure. The BRI can support these countries with institutional reform and anti-corruption efforts, mitigate the severity of the economic siege and, finally, pave the way for electrified transportation, industrialization, unimpeded trade, and green cities and SEZs.
Katbeh gave a brief overview of the three stages of Sino-Syrian relations. First, before the war: limited economic cooperation. Second, during the war: aid policy. Third, after the war: looking forward to further economic cooperation. She said that Syria is among the first Middle Eastern countries that established relations with China. Diplomatic relations were officially started between the two countries on August 1, 1956. However, economic cooperation was limited compared to the rest of the Arab countries in the region, especially the Gulf countries with whom diplomatic relations go back to the 1980s and 90s.
She continued that the crisis in the Syrian Arab Republic has been one of the most destructive since the Second World War. It has encompassed huge physical and societal damage, infrastructure destruction, a massive refugee crisis, and a severe economic downturn. As Western-imposed sanctions continue targeting Syria, China will be an increasingly important global partner for Damascus that can help to counterbalance Western pressure. The BRI is considered one of the most important international cooperation initiatives, providing important opportunities for the Syrians and Chinese to achieve a strategic partnership to support the reconstruction process in Syria through supporting investment cooperation in the fields of oil, gas and renewable energies; expanding the participation of Chinese companies in establishing major projects that contribute to the rehabilitation and development of infrastructure (electricity, transportation, construction, communications, water resources, and so on); and taking advantage of training and specialized programs that contribute to strengthening and developing human cadres within the basic sectors. Syrian officials have not just welcomed China's involvement in the reconstruction process but have actively worked for it.
After the presentations, Kheir and Katbeh also had in-depth discussion with audience members on topics including Sino-Syrian relations and the situation in the Middle East.