Assad seeks funds in China on first visit since war started in Syria

China one of only a handful of countries Syrian leader has visited since 2011; Beijing has pledged $2 billion in investments in Syria, but funds ‘yet to materialize’

Syrian President Bashar Assad, center, waves to his supporters at a polling station during the Presidential elections in the town of Douma, in the eastern Ghouta region, near the Syrian capital Damascus, Syria, May 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)
Syrian President Bashar Assad, center, waves to his supporters at a polling station during the Presidential elections in the town of Douma, in the eastern Ghouta region, near the Syrian capital Damascus, Syria, May 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)

HANGZHOU, China — Syrian President Bashar Assad on Thursday began his first official trip to China in almost two decades, state media reported, where he will ask a longtime ally for financial support to help rebuild his devastated country.

China becomes one of only a handful of countries outside the Middle East that Assad has visited since the 2011 start of a civil war that has since killed more than half a million people, displaced millions more, and battered Syria’s infrastructure and industry.

Assad also becomes the latest in a string of leaders ostracized by the West to be feted by Beijing, with Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro and Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi visiting this year, as well as top Russian officials.

He arrived Thursday in the eastern city of Hangzhou, where he will attend the opening ceremony of the Asian Games on Saturday.

The Syrian president’s Air China plane was greeted on the tarmac by jubilant music and rows of performers wearing colorful costumes, as Chinese and Syrian flags flapped in the sky, footage from state broadcaster CCTV showed.

He and other foreign leaders will meet in Hangzhou with Xi, CCTV said.

According to the Syrian presidency, Assad will also travel to Beijing.

The visit will be his first to China since 2004.

Beijing has long provided Damascus with diplomatic support, particularly at the UN Security Council where it is a permanent member.

Officials from both countries have also made visits over the years.

“This visit represents an important rupture in the diplomatic isolation and the political siege imposed on Syria,” Damascus-based political scientist Oussama Dannoura told AFP.

“China has been breaking Western taboos that seek to prevent a number of states from dealing with countries that Washington considers isolated,” he added.

Growing presence

The visit comes as China expands its engagement in the Middle East.

This year Beijing brokered a deal that saw longtime regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Damascus backer Iran agree to restore ties and reopen their respective embassies.

The detente was followed by Syria’s return to the Arab fold at a summit in Saudi Arabia in May, ending more than a decade of regional isolation.

This combination of file pictures created on September 21, 2023 shows China’s President Xi Jinping (L) attending a meeting in Beijing on April 6, 2023; and a handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on May 28, 2021 shows Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad (R) delivering a televised speech after securing a fourth term in office (Ludovic MARIN and Handout / various sources / AFP)

In 2019, top diplomat Wang Yi told the country’s then foreign minister Walid Muallem that China “firmly supports Syria’s economic reconstruction” and its efforts to “combat terrorism.”

Syria’s war began after Assad’s repression of peaceful pro-democracy protests escalated into a deadly conflict that pulled in foreign powers and jihadists.

Assad’s regime has branded all opponents — from non-violent activists to armed rebels and jihadists — as “terrorists.”

“Assad intends for his trip to China to convey a sense of international legitimacy for his regime and paint a picture of looming Chinese support for reconstruction in Syria,” said Lina Khatib, director of the Middle East Institute at SOAS university in London.

Khatib noted that the timing is significant, with Assad now facing protests calling for regime change in southern Syria.

“It is unlikely that either (intention) will be convincing to an increasingly restive population in Sweida,” added Khatib, referring to a Syrian city where protests are ongoing.

Economic aid

Recent months have seen Beijing roll out the red carpet for a string of autocrats, from Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko to a delegation of officials from Afghanistan’s Taliban government.

And foreign minister Wang is this week in Moscow, which faces a raft of Western sanctions over its war in Ukraine.

After welcoming Xi in Moscow earlier this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin is planning a visit to China in October, the Kremlin has said.

Analysts expect Assad’s visit to China will focus, in part, on funds for reconstruction.

A plume of smoke rises from a building following a reported Russian air strike on Syria’s northwestern rebel-held Idlib province, on June 25, 2023. (Abdulaziz KETAZ / AFP)

Syria signed up to China’s vast Belt and Road trade and infrastructure initiative in January 2022.

Haid Haid, a consulting fellow at London’s Chatham House, wrote on X that “the focus of this meeting is expected to revolve around convincing China to aid Syria’s economic recovery.”

China pledged $2 billion in investments in Syria in 2017, Haid noted — funds that have “yet to materialize.”

For Syria, joining the initiative “hasn’t resulted in significant Chinese investments in Syria, either from the Chinese government or the private sector,” he said.

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