Praise from Xi Jinping and a silk gown worn by Asma provided a PR boost for Damascus. But what it really needs is cold, hard cash
Shrouded in heavy fog, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad landed in the Chinese city of Hangzhou, exiting an Air China plane on 21 September in his first official visit to the country since 2004.
For Syrian officials, the visit carried their government's hopes of breaking further out of international isolation, following Syria’s recent readmission to the Arab League.
Syria’s half-frozen conflict, its cratering economy and the role of outside players were priority issues to discuss. So, too, was the elephant in the room: China’s growing role in Syria and the wider Middle East.
Though China has kept channels of dialogue and cooperation open with Damascus throughout Syria’s 12-year conflict, Beijing’s muscle has begun to be felt more forcefully in the region, with the recent Chinese-brokered Saudi-Iran rapprochement a landmark development.
It’s also believed the Chinese helped encourage Arab countries to bring Syria back into the fold.
It remains to be seen whether Syria can achieve similar breakthroughs with Chinese support following Assad’s trip. But nonetheless, it provided at the very least symbolic victories.
President Xi Jinping appeared to go out of his way to portray Assad as a trusted and welcomed ally during his week-long trip, and the surprise announcement of a “strategic partnership” has raised expectations of closer ties.
China to bring Assad in from the cold?
Syria played the polite guest in Hangzhou - home of the Asian Games, which Assad and his wife Asma attended - as Xi heaped praise on his Syrian counterpart.
“I salute your steadfastness. You defended your country with courage. We in China are closely following everything that is happening in Syria, and we are with you,” Xi said.
"China supports Syria's opposition to foreign interference, unilateral bullying... and will support Syria's reconstruction."
In a direct message to the United States, Xi exclaimed: “China urges all relevant countries to lift illegal unilateral sanctions on Syria immediately”, before a joint summit marked the formation of the “strategic partnership”.
Washington clearly was taking notice, with Senator Michael McCaul responding: “I strongly condemn Assad’s visit to China. China’s willingness to welcome such a brutal war criminal… underscores the threat posed by China and its friends in Russia, Iran and Syria.”
The symbolism didn’t stop there. Asma al-Assad was seen stepping out in a silk Damascene brocade robe, signalling that Syria and China have a shared history as two countries on the Silk Road.
Images of members of the Chinese public rushing to greet the Assads in the temple of Khanjo will also have been deemed a PR victory by Syrian officials.
The timing of the visit made much political sense for several reasons, analyst Camille Otrakji told Middle East Eye.
“Assad's supporters and opponents keenly monitored the developments of the visit and ultimately both sides could assert that it met their expectations and preferences,” Otrakji said.
“On one hand, numerous pacts were inked, including a 'strategic agreement', yet on the other hand, there was a lack of concrete measures that could translate into a tangible shift in the Syrian situation.”
While China has been touted as a major potential economic backer for Syria, any actual assistance will have its difficulties and complexities.
Otrakji added: “At this stage, it is unlikely that the Chinese government is prepared to go further and to confront the Americans and their intricate framework of sanctions on Syria. Only time will reveal whether this visit will catalyse a far deeper bond in Sino-Syrian relations in the future.”
Hope for Syria’s struggling economy
Assad’s priority in China was most likely economic. Over a decade of war, crippling western sanctions and an economic crisis in next-door Lebanon have left Syria’s economy in tatters.
Damascus has long hoped that China could drive reconstruction and deliver outside investment, though there has been wariness on the Chinese side, for whom security and sanctions remain an issue.
Nonetheless, Middle East analyst Alexander Langlois told MEE he believed Assad’s trip could prove significant.
“Although Damascus has witnessed major regional diplomatic advancements it has not received significant economic assistance following its return to the Arab League in May,” he said.
“Assad had likely hoped for Gulf reconstruction funds that never materialised - probably due to his disinterest in any publicly identifiable and/or serious concessions thus far.”
Langlois added: “The trip to China falls within this context and presents a major moment for Damascus to garner economic support. China-Syria trade is not substantial, but we have seen smaller Chinese businesses and investors willing to take on the risk of sanctions and conflict make business moves in Syria in recent years.”
Syria joined China's Belt and Road Initiative in 2022, and during Assad’s trip his aide, Luna al-Shibl, talked up the prospect of partnership.
“Syria constitutes an essential part of the Chinese vision for stability in the world, considering that China has established a new form in global politics,” she said.
Yet Syria’s economic plight necessitates a greater outreach than ever before, as over 90 percent of the population now live under the global poverty line and the government is being forced to make a series of unpopular and difficult cutbacks.
Meanwhile, Damascus is yet to see any significant Chinese investments or construction since joining the Belt and Road Initiative.
Syria’s currency exchange rate has worsened to the degree where even basic necessities are becoming scarce. According to the head of the Syrian pharmacies syndicate in Damascus, Hassan Derwan, the government decided to increase the prices of pharmaceuticals by 50 percent.
In essence, a state visit to China has been long overdue, and the messaging and optics go some way to showing an interest in cultivating solid ties, away from Russia and Iran, who can be unreliable at times and lack the economic initiative to help Syria.
Syria’s main priority, however, is cold, hard cash. And if eyes in Damascus are eagerly locked onto Beijing in the hope that assistance will come, China will no doubt require a tangible and substantial return. Perhaps the “strategic partnership” will be the beginning.