China and Syria will upgrade their relationship to a strategic partnership, following a meeting between China’s President Xi Jinping and Syria’s diplomatically-isolated leader Bashar al-Assad in Hangzhou today.
“In the face of an unstable and uncertain international environment, China is willing to continue to work with Syria in the interests of friendly cooperation and safeguarding international fairness and justice,” Xi said, according to Chinese state media.
The Syrian leader is in China to advance efforts to bring to an end more than a decade of diplomatic isolation under Western sanctions and to boost commercial ties with the world’s second-largest economy, as Syria desperately needs foreign investment.
Western sanctions on Syria have been steadily tightened since the early days of a civil war that began in 2011 with a crackdown on protests and went on to kill hundreds of thousands of people and displace millions. Assad’s government, backed by Russia and Iran, now controls most territory and has reestablished ties in recent years with Arab neighbours that once backed his opponents.
Assad is set to attend Saturday’s Asian Games opening ceremony with more than a dozen other foreign dignitaries, in his latest bid 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.
Analysts doubt Assad will wholly meet his objectives for the trip, as any Chinese or other investment in Syria risks entangling an investor in US sanctions under the Caesar Act in 2020 that can freeze assets of anyone dealing with Syria.