Syria’s Assad in China, seeks exit from diplomatic isolation

 Syrian President Bashar al-Assad arrived in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, his first visit to China since 2004 and his latest bid to end more than a decade of diplomatic isolation under Western sanctions.

Assad arrived aboard an Air China plane in heavy fog, which Chinese state media said “added to the atmosphere of mystery”, a nod to the Syrian leader’s infrequent trips abroad since 2011, when a civil war erupted that has killed more than half a million people.

The Syrian leader is set to attend Saturday’s Asian Games opening ceremony with more than a dozen other foreign dignitaries before leading a delegation in meetings in several Chinese cities. He meets President Xi Jinping on Friday and has further meetings on Sunday and Monday in Beijing.

Being seen with China’s president at a regional gathering should add further legitimacy to Assad’s campaign to return to the world stage. Syria joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2022 and was welcomed back into the Arab League in May.

Faced with a crippled economy and little to show so far from his efforts to rebuild ties with Arab states, Assad is keen for financial support. But any Chinese or other investment in Syria risks entangling an investor in U.S. sanctions under the Caesar Act in 2020 that can freeze assets of anyone dealing with Syria.

“In his third term, Xi Jinping is seeking to openly challenge the United States, so I don’t think it’s a surprise that he is willing to go against international norms and host a leader like Assad,” said Alfred Wu, an associate professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.

“It will further marginalise China in the world, but he doesn’t care about this,” he said.

Assad’s visit to China in 2004 was the first by a Syrian head of state since ties were established in 1956. China, like Syria’s main backers Russia and Iran, maintained relations with Damascus as others isolated Assad over his crackdown when protests first erupted in 2011.


Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma are welcomed upon their arrival at Hangzhou airport

[Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma are welcomed upon their arrival at Hangzhou airport, China in this handout picture obtained by Whisper Eye on September 21, 2023.

Assad’s trip to China, lasting several days, is one of his longest spells abroad since the civil war flared.

Alongside the U.S., Syria faces sanctions from Australia, Canada and European states, but bids to impose multilateral sanctions have not secured the support of the U.N. Security Council, where China and Russia both have a veto.

China has used its veto at least eight times on U.N. motions condemning Assad’s government. However, China has not directly supported the regime’s efforts to regain control of the country.

Syria, a small oil producer, holds strategic significance for China. It lies between Iraq, a major oil supplier to China, and Turkey, the terminus of economic corridors stretching across Asia into Europe. Syria also borders Jordan and Lebanon.

In 2008 and 2009, Chinese state energy firms Sinopec Corp, Sinochem and CNPC invested a combined $3 billion in Syria, spurred by Beijing’s call to acquire global oil and gas assets.

Investments included Sinochem’s $900 million purchase of London-headquartered Emerald Energy, which had Syrian assets, although its operations in Syria halted in 2011, a partner firm said. CNPC, which was involved in producing oil at several small blocks, ceased production around 2014.

Analysts doubt Chinese firms are considering returning to Syria, given its poor security and dire financial situation.

“Syria has been trying to get investment from China for a long time … but the big question is whether any proposals discussed during this visit turn into actual projects,” said Samuel Ramani, an analyst at London’s RUSI think-tank.

“At the moment, China is pretty frustrated with the West, and Syria is trying to develop ties with more countries, but can that be converted into something tangible?” he added.