Syrian President Bashar al-Assad arrived in China on Thursday as he seeks financial support to rebuild his country and improve its international reputation after being ostracized over atrocities during Syria’s ongoing civil war.
His visit comes as China seeks to present itself as a powerful influence in the Middle East and a partner with nations shunned by the United States and the West. He is expected to meet China’s top leader, Xi Jinping.
Mr. al-Assad’s trip is his first visit to China in nearly two decades and comes as he strives to rehabilitate Syria’s image around the world. China has maintained diplomatic ties with Syria even as other countries have isolated Mr. al-Assad over his brutal crackdown on the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, which led to an ongoing civil war.
His government is accused of atrocities such as the use of chemical weapons against its own people, the torture of thousands of opponents in a network of secret prisons and the siege of towns and villages in a conflict that has claimed more than half a million dead.
With the civil war virtually at a stalemate, Mr. al-Assad is seeking investment to help rebuild the country. There has been little reconstruction in the war-scarred country due to widespread Western sanctions. The United States and many European states have refused to fund any reconstruction in Syria without a political settlement as required by a United Nations resolution.
China is unlikely to set the political conditions necessary for its participation in reconstruction in Syria. He has strengthened Mr. al-Assad’s position on Russia’s side since the start of the civil war, using his veto at the United Nations as recently as 2020 to block resolutions involving Syria.
With the support of Russia and Iran, Mr. al-Assad regained control of much of the country, but he now leads a broken and impoverished state, facing an economic crisis and renewed protests over his ouster.
In 2022, he announced that Syria would join China’s Belt and Road Initiative. He also praised China for its role in brokering a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore relations in March. In May, Syria was readmitted to the Arab League, although the restoration of full diplomatic relations with some countries has stalled.
What happens next
Mr. al-Assad landed in Hangzhou and will attend events surrounding the Asian Games, which open Saturday in the eastern Chinese city. He comes to China with high hopes – even outsized expectations – for what Beijing could do for his country, analysts say.
“The hope is that China can once again use its facilitative role to mediate between Syria, Turkey, Iran and Russia to restore Assad’s government control over the country,” he said. Julia Gurol-Haller, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Freiburg in Germany. .
In the long term, China views the port of Latakia, Syria, as a location of strategic importance as part of its ambitions to gain a foothold in the Mediterranean Sea, Dr Gurol-Haller said. But China has been cautious so far, limiting its investments in Syria to modest levels.
Why is this important
Mr. al-Assad’s visit represents an opportunity for Beijing to demonstrate its diplomatic strength at a time when China faces growing rivalry with the United States for geopolitical influence, particularly in the Middle East.
During Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ visit to Beijing in June, China offered to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to be presented with a similar offer of mediation when he visits China later this year.
But China’s ability to broker deals between the region’s embittered nations is limited, due to a lack of experience and knowledge, said Jonathan Fulton, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“The most important thing is just for the leader of another country to come to town and say ‘we embrace these initiatives and we agree with Beijing’s vision of how international politics should work.'” , did he declare.