September 20, 2023 | Flash Brief

Syria and China Deepen Ties as Assad Slated to Visit Beijing

September 20, 2023 | Flash Brief

Syria and China Deepen Ties as Assad Slated to Visit Beijing

Latest Developments

Syrian President Bashar Assad will visit Beijing on Thursday, September 21, to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Damascus announced this week. The trip — Assad’s first visit to China since 2004 — reflects the Syrian leader’s increasing rehabilitation on the international stage, where he has remained largely isolated since the onset of his country’s civil war in 2011. Beijing has supported Assad throughout the conflict, repeatedly vetoing or abstaining from resolutions against Damascus at the United Nations. The trip also reflects China’s increasing influence in the Middle East, particularly its burgeoning ties with Iran, Syria’s leading patron.

Expert Analysis

“This is a summit of butchers. Yet once the Arab League rehabilitated Assad, it’s not surprising to see other dictators welcome him. The real question is whether the United States and its allies will stand firm on Syria policy. The Biden administration insists it opposes normalization with Assad but refuses to get serious about imposing human rights sanctions that have deep bipartisan support on the Hill. Many expected better from an administration that committed to ‘putting human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy.’” — David Adesnik, FDD Senior Fellow and Director of Research

“Bilateral trade between Syria and China has significantly dropped in recent years. Assad will be going hat in hand to Beijing, begging for increasing trade as much as he will be seeking legitimacy and a public profile. Trade may increase, but until Assad stops torturing political prisoners, hiding them in mass graves, bombing kindergartens, hospitals, and markets, and engaging in financial corruption schemes such as the deadly Captagon trade, he won’t be trusted by his own people and Syria won’t become the successful country it could be. There are limits to how much a reputation can be cleansed without risking one’s own interests.” — Toby Dershowitz, FDD Senior Vice President for Government Relations and Strategy

Assad’s Rehabilitation

Assad’s trip comes in the wake of renewed support for his legitimacy by the Arab League. In May, Assad traveled to Saudi Arabia for an Arab summit, where Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman warmly embraced him. In March, Assad visited the United Arab Emirates, where he received a cannon salute as he entered President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan’s royal palace. In February, Assad visited Oman, where he met with Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, who said he hopes Syria’s relationships with all Arab states return to normal. Qatar has refrained from inviting Assad to visit the country.

The United States may have quietly encouraged Assad’s rehabilitation. Barbara Leaf, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said in an interview earlier this year, “We advise our friends and partners in the region that they should get something in return for this engagement with Assad.” The Biden administration has also failed to fully enforce U.S. sanctions on Syria, effectively sending the message that Washington will impose no significant consequences on countries that renew ties with Damascus.

Chinese Influence in the Middle East

China has increasingly become a power broker in the Middle East. In March, Beijing brokered a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Meanwhile, Iran’s oil exports to China have increased dramatically, partly as a result of the Biden administration’s deliberately lax enforcement of U.S. sanctions. “Crude shipments from Iran to China have jumped to between 1.4 million barrels a day and nearly 1.9 million a day, according to tanker tracking and analysts, from levels below 1 million a day last year,” Bloomberg reported earlier this month. In early 2022, Syria joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Bashar Al Assad Must Pay,” by David Adesnik

Biden is quietly encouraging Assad’s rehabilitation. He should reverse course.,” by David Adesnik

A Strategy to End the Systematic Theft of Humanitarian Aid in Syria,” by David Adesnik


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