BEIJING: Syrian President Bashar Al Assad has arrived in China’s eastern city of Hangzhou, kicking off his first visit to the Asian nation since 2004 as he makes further strides to end more than a decade of diplomatic isolation amid Western sanctions.
Al Assad arrived aboard an Air China plane in a heavy fog, which Chinese state media said “added to the atmosphere of mystery” in a nod to the fact the Syrian leader has seldom been seen outside his country since the start of a civil war that has claimed more than half a million lives.
China said on Thursday that a visit by Al Assad would take ties to a “new level”.
“We believe that President Bashar Al Assad’s visit will further deepen mutual political trust and cooperation in various fields between the two countries, pushing bilateral ties to a new level,” foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told a regular press briefing.
Al Assad is set to attend the opening ceremony of the Asian Games, along with more than a dozen foreign dignitaries, before leading a delegation for meetings in several Chinese cities, including a summit with President Xi Jinping.
Al Assad will meet Xi on Friday, a day before the Syrian president attends the opening of the games, said a member of the Syrian delegation, which is scheduled to hold other meetings in Beijing on Sunday and Monday.
Being seen alongside China’s president at a regional gathering should add further legitimacy to Syria’s campaign to return to the world stage, during which it has joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2022 and been re-admitted in May to the 22-nation strong Arab League.
Al Assad last visited China in 2004 to meet then-President Hu Jintao. It was the first visit by a Syrian head of state since diplomatic ties were established in 1956.
China, like Syria’s main allies, Russia and Iran, maintained those ties even as other countries isolated Al Assad over his crackdown on anti-government demonstrations that erupted in 2011.
Al Assad’s days-long trip to China will mark one of his longest spells of absence in Syria since his country’s civil war broke out.
Al Assad faces sanctions imposed by Australia, Canada, Europe, Switzerland and the US, but efforts to apply multilateral sanctions failed to secure unanimous support at the United Nations Security Council, which has China and Russia as members.
China has on at least eight occasions vetoed UN motions condemning Al Assad’s government and aimed at bringing to an end the decade-old conflict that has sucked in neighbours and world powers.
Unlike Iran and Russia, China has not directly supported the regime’s efforts to regain control of the country.
Syria has strategic importance for China as it is located between Iraq, which provides about a tenth of China’s oil, Turkey, the terminus of economic corridors stretching across Asia into Europe, and Jordan, which often mediates regional disputes.
While Syria is a relatively small oil producer, its revenue is pivotal to the government.
In 2008 and 2009, state Chinese energy majors Sinopec Corp, Sinochem and CNPC invested a combined $3 billion in Syria, spurred by a call from Beijing to acquire global oil and gas assets.
Investments included Sinopec’s $2-billion acquisition of Tanganyika Oil, a small producer of heavy oil, and Sinochem’s nearly $900-million purchase of London-headquartered Emerald Energy, whose assets were primarily in Syria and Colombia.
Sinochem stopped operations in Syria in 2011, according to its partner Gulfsands Petroleum.
Around 2014, CNPC, which was involved in producing oil at several small blocks, also ceased production, following European Union sanctions and US deployment to Syria to combat Daesh (Islamic State), company officials said.