21st September 2023 – (Hangzhou) Syrian President Bashar al-Assad embarked on his first official trip to China in nearly two decades on Thursday, aiming to secure financial aid from a long-time ally for the reconstruction of his war-torn country, according to state media.
This visit marks one of the few occasions that Assad has travelled outside the Middle East since the start of the war in 2011, a conflict that has claimed the lives of over half a million people, displaced millions, and caused extensive damage to Syria’s infrastructure and industries.
Assad joins a series of world leaders who have been shunned by the West but embraced by Beijing. Earlier this year, Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, and top Russian officials all paid visits to China.
The Syrian president arrived in Hangzhou, an eastern city in China, where he will attend the opening ceremony of the Asian Games on Saturday. Upon his arrival, jubilant music filled the air, and performers in vibrant costumes welcomed him on the tarmac, with Chinese and Syrian flags proudly displayed, as captured in footage by state broadcaster CCTV.
Assad is also expected to visit Beijing during his trip. This visit to China is his first since 2004.
China has been a consistent diplomatic supporter of Damascus, particularly at the United Nations Security Council where it holds permanent membership. Officials from both countries have engaged in visits over the years.
Political scientist Oussama Dannoura, based in Damascus, commented, “This visit represents an important breakthrough in the diplomatic isolation and the political siege imposed on Syria. China has been defying Western taboos that aim to prevent certain states from engaging with countries deemed isolated by Washington.”
Earlier this year, China brokered a deal between long-time regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, resulting in the restoration of diplomatic ties and the reopening of embassies.
This detente was followed by Syria’s return to the Arab fold at a summit in Saudi Arabia in May, ending over a decade of regional isolation for Damascus.
In 2019, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi assured Syria’s former foreign minister, Walid Muallem, of China’s firm support for Syria’s economic reconstruction efforts and its fight against terrorism.
The Syrian conflict erupted when Assad’s repression of peaceful pro-democracy protests escalated into a deadly confrontation involving foreign powers and militants.
Assad’s regime has labeled all opposition groups, from non-violent activists to armed rebels and militants, as “terrorists”.
Lina Khatib, director of the Middle East Institute at SOAS, commented on Assad’s trip, stating, “Assad intends for his visit to China to convey a sense of international legitimacy for his regime and portray an image of impending Chinese support for reconstruction in Syria.” Khatib added that the timing is significant, as Assad is currently facing protests calling for regime change in southern Syria.
“However, it is unlikely that either intention will be convincing to an increasingly restive population in Sweida,” Khatib concluded, referring to the ongoing protests in a Syrian city.
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