Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad to Meet With Xi Jinping on First China Visit in Nearly 20 Years

Syria Assad

Chinese leader Xi Jinping will meet Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad during a visit to the world’s No. 2 economy this week, a sign Beijing is taking more steps to expand its influence in the Middle East.

Xi will meet foreign leaders attending the Asian Games in the eastern city of Hangzhou, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing said Thursday. Xi will hold a welcome banquet and conduct “bilateral activities” on Friday and Saturday, the ministry added.

Syrian’s minister of economy and trade, Mohammad Samer al-Khalil, will travel with Assad, the state-run SANA news agency reported earlier.

China has been stepping up its diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, most notably by helping broker a detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March. During a visit to Beijing by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in June, Xi proposed an international peace conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though there have been few signs of progress on that.

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China’s push comes as the Middle East has become less of a priority for the U.S. It also gives Beijing more sway in the Persian Gulf, the world’s biggest source of petroleum. Last month, China’s campaign for the BRICS bloc to add more members succeeded, with top oil exporter Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt and the UAE joining.

Assad last visited China in 2004, about four years after he became president, when he met former Chinese leader Hu Jintao. It was the first time a Syrian head of state went to China since the two countries formed diplomatic relations in 1956.

The Syrian government’s isolation resulting from Assad’s crackdown on opponents after the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings is easing. In May, the Arab League states moved to reinstate Syria, disregarding reservations voiced by the U.S.

China and Russia have blocked attempts to sanction Assad at the U.N. Security Council, prompting the U.S. and European Union to impose unilateral restrictions against him, his government and his supporters. Backing from Russia, Iran and its allies in Lebanon has helped Assad survive the country’s ensuing civil war.