Beirut: A top Chinese military officer wrapped up a low-profile visit to Syria this week, which was only made public by the country’s state-run agency SANA after the visiting general left Damascus.

Rear Admiral Guan Youfei arrived in Damascus last weekend for talks with Syrian Defence Minister Fahd Jassim Al Freij and Lieutenant-General Sergei Chvarkov, head of the ceasefire monitoring mission in Syria, in addition to top Russian generals at the Hmaymeem military base on the Syrian coast.

The two countries decided to officially boost training and humanitarian aid, signalling stronger Chinese support for Damascus, as the current war drags well into its fifth year. It is the first public visit by a senior Chinese officer to Syria since the Russian Army joined the war last September.

Guan expressed China’s willingness to boost military cooperation with Syria, while newspaper The Global Times cited the Chinese Defence Ministry as saying that both sides agreed to expand personnel training and humanitarian aid via the Chinese military.

The Chinese military “is willing to strengthen cooperation with its Syrian counterparts,” it quoted the ministry as saying.

Guan is head of the Office for International Military Cooperation under the Central Military Commission that oversees China’s 2.3 million-member armed forces.

Guan said China had consistently played a positive role in pushing for a political resolution in Syria.

“China and Syria’s militaries have a traditionally friendly relationship, and China’s military is willing to keep strengthening exchanges and cooperation with Syria’s military,” the news agency paraphrased Guan as saying.

According to The Global Times, published by the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily, Beijing has already deployed special advisers and military personnel in Syria and provided the Syrian Army with sniper rifles and rocket launchers. In October 2015, the Chinese government hosted Syrian Presidential Adviser Bouthaina Shaaban and last March, it named Xie Xiaoyan, a former ambassador to Iran, as “special representative to Syria.” The Chinese Embassy in Damascus, located behind the now closed American one, remains open at an ambassadorial level since the outbreak of the Syria conflict in early 2011.

China’s position has not changed ever since; it officially stands by President Bashar Al Assad, using its veto power at the UN Security Council twice to defeat French and Saudi-backed resolutions against Damascus. Part of that support comes from China’s excellent relationship with President Vladimir Putin, who signed a historic treaty of friendship with Beijing back in 2001. Many perceived it as a defence pact, and one of its clauses called for Chinese access to Russian military technology.

Earlier this spring, Putin travelled to China for the fifteenth time since first emerging as his country’s strongman in 2000. Since his warplanes joined the Syrian battles in September, he has been adamant on a total victory in strategic cities like Palmyra in the Syrian Desert and Aleppo in the Syrian north. The first was liberated from the Daesh in March while the second is currently witnessing fierce battles between rebels and a huge army of Russian, Hezbollah and Syrian troops.

To recapture Aleppo, he has launched a major international relations campaign, restoring ties with Turkey and receiving President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in St Petersburg earlier this August and now, engaging his Chinese allies deeper in the Syrian Crisis.

The Chinese entry into the Syria war may be caused by the increasing number of Chinese Muslim Uighur militants fighting alongside Syrian rebels in the Syrian north. One of them, an Istanbul-educated fighter, had returned from Aleppo to Xinjiang in northwest China and was arrested while planning a series of terrorist attacks.

According to General Guan Youfei, over 200 Uighurs are currently fighting in the Syrian battlefield and China wants to join the war for rounding them up and having them arrested and deported to China for trial, or exterminated in Syria.

— With inputs from AP, Reuters