HANGZHOU, China: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday began his first official trip to China in almost two decades, with Beijing saying the visit will take ties to a “new level” as the Arab leader seeks financial support to help rebuild his devastated country.
China is one of only a handful of countries outside the Middle East that Assad has visited since the 2011 start of a civil war that has killed more than half a million people, displaced millions more, and battered Syria´s infrastructure and industry.
Assad is the latest in a string of leaders ostracised by the West to be feted by Beijing, with Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro and Iran´s President Ebrahim Raisi visiting this year, as well as top Russian officials.
He arrived on Thursday in the eastern city of Hangzhou, where he will attend the opening ceremony of the Asian Games on Saturday. The Syrian president´s Air China plane was greeted on the tarmac by jubilant music and rows of performers wearing colourful costumes, as Chinese and Syrian flags flapped in the sky, footage from state broadcaster CCTV showed.
He and other foreign leaders will meet Xi in Hangzhou, CCTV said. According to the Syrian presidency, Assad will also travel to Beijing. The visit is his first to China since 2004. China´s foreign ministry said the visit will serve to take ties to a “new level”.
“China and Syria have a traditional and deep friendship,” foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told a regular briefing. “We believe that President Bashar al-Assad´s visit will further deepen mutual political trust and cooperation in various fields between the two countries,” she added.
Beijing has long provided Damascus with diplomatic support, particularly at the UN Security Council where it is a permanent member. “This visit represents an important rupture in the diplomatic isolation and the political siege imposed on Syria,” Damascus-based political scientist Oussama Dannoura told AFP. “China has been breaking Western taboos that seek to prevent a number of states from dealing with countries that Washington considers isolated,” he added.