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Syria's Assad visits China seeking funds

Hangzhou, China | September 21, 2023, Thursday @ 15:01 in World » GENERAL | By: AFP | Views: 3117
Syria's Assad visits China seeking funds

A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (C) and First Lady Asma al-Assad (R) being welcomed upon their arrival at the airport in Beijing, on September 21, 2023. Assad on September 21 began his first official trip to China in almost two decades, with Beijing saying the visit will take ties to a "new level" as the Arab leader seeks financial support to help rebuild his devastated country. (Photo by SANA / AFP)

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(AFP) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday began his first official trip to China in almost two decades, with Beijing saying the visit will take ties to a "new level" as the Arab leader seeks financial support to help rebuild his devastated country.

China is 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 killed more than half a million people, displaced millions more, and battered Syria's infrastructure and industry.

Assad is the latest in a string of leaders ostracised 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 colourful costumes, as Chinese and Syrian flags flapped in the sky, footage from state broadcaster CCTV showed.

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

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

The visit is his first to China since 2004.

China's foreign ministry said the visit will serve to take ties to a "new level".

"China and Syria have a traditional and deep friendship," foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told a regular briefing.

"We believe that President Bashar al-Assad's visit will further deepen mutual political trust and cooperation in various fields between the two countries," she added.

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

"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.

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.

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 social media 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 materialise".

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.

© Agence France-Presse

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Tags: al-Assad, China, Syria, diplomacy

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