Syria’s Leader Visits China in Search of Friends and Funds

The News

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria arrived in China on Thursday as he sought financial support to rebuild his country and to improve his international standing after being ostracized over atrocities committed during Syria’s ongoing civil war.

His visit takes place as China seeks to present itself as a powerful influence in the Middle East, and a partner to nations that are shunned by the United States and the West. He is expected to meet with 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 has pushed to rehabilitate Syria’s global image. China maintained diplomatic ties with Syria even as other nations isolated Mr. al-Assad over his brutal crackdown against the Arab Spring uprising in 2011, which led to an ongoing civil war.

His government stands accused of atrocities such as using chemical weapons against its own people, torturing thousands of opponents in a network of secret prisons and besieging towns and cities in a conflict that left more than half a million dead.

With the civil war mostly at a stalemate, Mr. al-Assad is looking for investments to help rebuild the country. There has been scant reconstruction of the war-scarred country because of widespread Western sanctions. The United States and many European states have refused to fund any reconstruction in Syria without a political settlement as laid out by a United Nations resolution.

China is unlikely to set political conditions for taking part in reconstruction in Syria. It has buttressed Mr. al-Assad’s position alongside Russia since the civil war began, using its veto power in the United Nations as recently as 2020 to block resolutions involving Syria.

With the backing of Russia and Iran, Mr. al-Assad has clawed back control over much of the country, but he now leads a broken and impoverished state facing an economic crisis and renewed protests for his ouster.

An anti-government demonstration earlier this month in Sweida, a southern province of Syria and home to the country’s Druse sect.Credit…EPA, via Shutterstock

In 2022, he announced that Syria would join China’s Belt and Road Initiative. He has also lauded China for its role in brokering an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties in March. In May, Syria was readmitted to the Arab League, though the re-establishment of full diplomatic relations with some countries has stalled.

What Happens Next

Mr. al-Assad landed in Hangzhou and will attend events around the Asian Games, which open on Saturday in the eastern Chinese city. He comes to China with high hopes — if not outsize expectations — of what Beijing might do for his country, analysts said.

“The hope is that China might again use its role as a facilitator to mediate between Syria, Turkey, Iran and Russia to restore Assad’s government’s control of the country,” said Julia Gurol-Haller, a postdoctoral researcher at thwee University of Freiburg in Germany.

In the long term, China sees the port in Latakia, Syria, as a place of strategic importance in its ambitions to gain a foothold in the Mediterranean Sea, Dr. Gurol-Haller said. But China has been cautious so far, keeping its investments in Syria modest.

Why It Matters

Mr. al-Assad’s visit presents an opportunity for Beijing to demonstrate diplomatic strength at a time when China is facing an intensifying rivalry with the United States for geopolitical influence, including in the Middle East.

When the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, visited Beijing in June, China offered to mediate between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is expected to be presented with a similar offer of mediation when he visits China later this year.

The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, left, met with China’s leader, Xi Jinping, in Beijing in June. Credit…Pool photo by Jade Gao

But China’s ability to broker deals between embittered nations in the region is limited, because of a lack of experience and knowledge, said Jonathan Fulton, a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council.

“The bigger part is just to have another country’s leader come to town and say ‘we’re signing on to these initiatives and we agree with Beijing’s vision of how international politics should work’,” he said.

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