When Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad entered Chinese territory on Thursday, September 21, he broke 20 years without visiting the country. A day later, he met with President Xi Jinping in Hangzhou and on Saturday, September 23, both attended the opening ceremony of the 19th Asian Games.
The Syrian leader is internationally isolated after his regime took radical measures against his country’s population during the 2011 protests, which led to a civil war that continues to this day, albeit at a lower intensity. Accusations of the use of poisonous gases, torture and executions are mounting against Assad’s forces.
We had to wait until mid-May this year for Al Assad to attend an international meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for the first time. Then the Arab League took Syria back into its fold, a decision that the West did not like. Now the visit to China continues.
Beijing: strategic partnership
State television CCTV covered Al Assad’s arrival in Hangzhou with a 35-minute live broadcast on Sina Weibo, one of China’s most popular social platforms. It was unusual reporting full of symbolism.
“Today we will announce the formation of a strategic partnership between China and Syria, which will be a historic milestone in our bilateral relations,” Xi said. “Faced with an international situation full of instability and insecurity, China is willing to continue working with Syria to provide strong mutual support, promote friendly cooperation and jointly uphold justice and justice,” he added.
China supports Syria in its struggle to “resist foreign interference and unilateral intimidation, and safeguard national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Beijing wants to help Damascus “rebuild and strengthen counter-terrorism capabilities,” Xi added.
China could invest in the reconstruction of Syria after the civil war.Image: Bülent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images
As the images showed, Al Assad stepped off an Air China plane with his wife and was greeted with cheerful music and flags. About a hundred colorfully costumed children and young people lined up and danced.
China blocked UN resolutions
Unlike Iran and Russia, China did not directly support Syria during the darkest part of the civil war. However, Beijing also provided support in other areas and – together with Russia – blocked various UN resolutions against Damascus at least eight times thanks to its veto power.
In October 2017, Chinese state agency Xinhua reported that Xi Jinping’s regime was willing to cooperate in rebuilding Syria. With strategic investments in this country, the Chinese could gain access to the Mediterranean ports of Latakia and Tartus, opening up new prospects for their new “Silk Road” project.
For Alfred Wu of the University of Singapore’s School of Public Policy, Al Assad’s visit to China comes as no surprise as Xi always seeks to challenge the UN. “It is unlikely that this visit will expand the New Silk Road project as China no longer has the financial capacity to expand this initiative. Xi is more about showing that he is the leader of the global south,” Wu told DW. That would also be the reason why he traveled to the Brics summit in South Africa, but not to the G20 summit in India.
In recent months, Beijing has hosted several high-ranking leaders from countries ostracized by the West. Al Assad’s visit is another sign of this strategy, says Wu. However, Assad cannot expect this to help him thaw his isolation in the West. “He can only travel to China for now. No western country would take him in,” says the expert.
Haid Haid of the London think tank Chatham House wrote on social media that the meeting with Xi Al Assad would help persuade China to provide aid for Syria’s economic recovery. The official statement after the meeting between Xi and Al Assad assured that Beijing is ready to strengthen cooperation and increase imports of high-quality Syrian agricultural products. However, it is not yet known how much financial support Damascus will receive following this official alliance and what Xi called a “strategic partnership.”