Syria’s Assad to visit China as Beijing boosts reach in the Middle East

Middle East USA World

DAMASCUS, Syria >> Syria’s President Bashar Assad will head to China later this week in his first visit to Beijing since the start of his country’s 12-year conflict during which China has been one of his main backers, his office said Tuesday.

China has been expanding its reach in the Middle East after mediating a deal in March between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and it continues to support Assad in the Syrian conflict, which has killed half a million people and left large parts of the nation in ruins.

China could play a major role in the future in Syria’s reconstruction, which is expected to cost tens of billions of dollars. Syria last year joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative in which Beijing expands its influence in developing regions through infrastructure projects.

Assad’s office said the Syrian leader was invited by Chinese President Xi Jinping for a summit and will head Thursday to Beijing along with a high-ranking Syrian delegation.

Syria’s worsening economic crisis has led to protests in government-held parts of the country, mainly in the southern province of Sweida. Syria blames the crisis on Western sanctions and U.S.-backed Kurdish-led fighters who control the country’s largest oil fields in the east near the border with Iraq.

Diplomatic contacts between Syria and other Arab countries have intensified following the Feb. 6, earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria killing more than 50,000 people, including over 6,000 in Syria. Assad flew to Saudi Arabia in May where he attended the Arab League summit days after Syria’s membership was reinstated in the 22-member league.

Since Syria’s conflict began in March 2011 with pro-democracy protests and later turned into a civil war, Iran and Russia have helped Assad regain control of much of the country.

China has used its veto power at the U.N. eight times to stop resolutions against Assad’s government, the latest in July 2020. Chinese authorities also closely coordinate with Syrian security services on the presence of thousands of Chinese fighters who are based in Syria mostly in the last rebel stronghold in the northwestern province of Idlib.

Since 2013, thousands of Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority from western China, have traveled to Syria to train with the Uyghur militant group Turkistan Islamic Party and fight alongside al-Qaida, playing key roles in several battles.

Assad’s last and only visit to China was in 2004, a year after the U.S.-led invasion of neighboring Iraq and at a time when Washington was putting pressure on Syria.

Assad’s office said that his wife, Asma, will accompany him to China this week. Over the past years, Assad has made several trips abroad including visits to Russia, Iran, United Arab Emirates and Oman.

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Mroue reported from Beirut.