China’s Xi meets Syria’s Assad and announces strategic partnership

World

Syrian President Bashar al Assad has met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in China for “in-depth talks”, according to Chinese state media.

It is Mr Assad‘s first visit to the country in almost 20 years, and since the start of Syria’s 12-year civil conflict – one in which Beijing has been one of his main backers.

The pair met on the sidelines of the Asian Games on Friday.

Image:
The two leaders holding talks in Hangzhou. Pic: SANA/Handout via Reuters

China and Syria will establish a strategic partnership, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported, with President Xi describing the move as an important milestone in the history of both countries.

“In the face of an unstable and uncertain international environment, China is willing to continue to work with Syria in the interests of friendly cooperation and safeguarding international fairness and justice,” Mr Xi said, according to Chinese state media.

President Xi will be hosting a banquet later and conducting bilateral activities with Mr Assad and other heads of state and government attending the games.

Mr Assad arrived in China on Thursday ahead of the opening ceremony of the international sports event, which begins on Saturday in the eastern city of Hangzhou, where he will be joined by other foreign leaders.

Image:
President Assad was given the red carpet treatment. Pic: Syrian Presidency/via Reuters

Speaking ahead of the face-to-face talks, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said Mr Assad’s visit would “further deepen political mutual trust and cooperation in various fields between the two countries and push bilateral relations to a new level”.

She added the two leaders would be holding “in depth talks” on a range of issues.

Mr Assad’s office had previously said he was invited by President Xi and would bring with him a high-ranking Syrian delegation.

China has been expanding its reach in the Middle East after mediating a deal in March between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Analysis: It’s the message this visit sends that matters

If Assad’s trip to Beijing is part of an effort to end a decade of diplomatic isolation, then it’s an effort China is happy to enable.

Hosting a figure like Bashar al Assad might further marginalise China in the eyes of many Western powers, but this is not something Xi Jinping cares much about and he is increasingly willing to make that clear.

What China is seeking via relations with Syria is not just influence in the Middle East (it is increasingly trying to position itself as a potential peace broker and go-to superpower in the region) but economic opportunity too.

Indeed, Syria joined China’s Belt and Road initiative in 2022, and China is no doubt acutely aware of how much potential business is available in rebuilding the war-torn nation.

Of course any business with Syria risks Chinese entities being subject to US sanctions, which can freeze the assets of anyone dealing with the Arab nation.

But arguably it’s the messaging of this visit that matters just as much as the substance: China will do things its own way and doesn’t need to play along with Western set international norms.

Meanwhile, diplomatic relations between Damascus and other Arab countries have intensified since the February earthquake that hit Syria and Turkey.

In March, Mr Assad was in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for an official visit during which President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan said the two “held constructive talks aimed at developing relations between our two countries”.

And in May, Mr Assad attended the annual summit of the Arab League in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for the first time in 12 years after Syria’s membership was reinstated in the 22-member organisation.

Mr Assad was suspended by the alliance after his crackdown on pro-democracy protests led to the breakout of civil war in 2011.

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More than 500,000 people have died since then and more than half of the country’s 22 million pre-war population have had to flee their homes.

Syria’s currency is collapsing and the country is suffering from a lack of electricity, medicine and daily essentials, despite support from Russia and Iran.

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The Syrian leader is in China to advance efforts to bring to an end more than a decade of diplomatic isolation under Western sanctions and to boost commercial ties with the world’s second-largest economy, as Syria desperately needs foreign investment.

His last visit to China was in 2004, a year after the US-led invasion of neighbouring Iraq.

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