Will Xi Jinping help to end Syria's isolation?
On Friday 22 September 2023, footage showed Syrian President Bashar Assad and his wife, Asma, stepping off an Air China plane in Hangzhou to be greeted by celebratory music as the flags of China and Syria waved. About 100 young people and children in colourful costumes were assembled in rows and danced.
During his first visit to the country since 2004, Assad met with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, on Friday. On Saturday, the strongmen sat with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and other dignitaries at the opening ceremony of the Asian Games.
The countries established diplomatic relations in 1956, but Assad, whose two trips come nearly two decades apart, is the only Syrian president to have visited China. Assad became increasingly isolated internationally after his government's clampdown on Arab Spring protests in 2011 and during the civil war that ensued.
His regime has been accused of war crimes such as the use of poison gas and barrel bombs, torture, and extrajudicial killings. In recent weeks, anti-government protests have gained intensity in Syria following unpopular policy decisions.
In May, Assad attended a major international meeting again for the first time since the conflict erupted, travelling to an Arab League summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The body agreed to readmit Syria after its suspension of over 10 years because of the civil war, a decision that displeased Western leaders. Assad's visit to China could be a step toward further rehabilitating diplomatic connections.
Syria-China: 'A strategic partnership'
Chinese state broadcaster CCTV covered Assad's arrival in Hangzhou with a 35-minute livestream on the social media platform Sina Weibo – a rare amount of coverage with great symbolic power.
Then, Xi announced the establishment of a "strategic partnership" between the two countries, according to a readout of the meeting by CCTV. "Faced with an international situation full of instability and uncertainty, China is willing to continue to work together with Syria, firmly support each other, promote friendly cooperation, and jointly defend international fairness and justice," Xi said.
The president said China would support Syria in "resisting foreign interference and unilateral intimidation and preserving national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity". He said China would help Syria "rebuild and strengthen its counterterrorism capabilities".
Haid Haid, a consulting fellow at the London-based think tank 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".
The Chinese government's announcement after the meeting between Xi and Assad indicates that China is willing to strengthen cooperation with Syria through the Belt and Road Initiative, also known as the New Silk Road, which Syria signed on to in 2022. That could increase imports of high-value agricultural products from Syria. However, it remains to be seen just how much financial aid Assad would receive from the partnership.
China's Security Council support
Unlike Iran and Russia, China has not directly supported the Assad regime in the civil war. The country has, however, provided significant support for Assad's government by joining Russia to use its veto power on the UN Security Council to block resolutions naming Syria on at least eight occasions.
In 2017, the state news agency Xinhua reported that China's government would seek to participate in the reconstruction of Syria. Strategic investment in Syria would likely provide China with access to the Mediterranean ports of Latakia and Tartus, opening up new prospects for the New Silk Road.
Alfred Wu, a professor with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at Singapore's National University, commented that Assad's visit to China aligns with Xi's repeated challenges to the United States.
"This visit is not about the New Silk Road initiative, because China is no longer financially able to expand the project," Wu said. "It is more about Xi showing that he is the leader of the Global South." Wu said that was also Xi's reasoning for travelling to South Africa for the BRICS summit but not to India for the G20.
Xi has repeatedly welcomed high-ranking representatives of countries that have been ostracized by the United States and its allies. Assad's visit will not likely help his standing with the United States and EU. "He can only go to China at the moment," Wu said. "No Western country would receive him."
© Deutsche Welle 2023