By Joe Cash
BEIJING (Reuters) -Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has arrived in China’s eastern city of Hangzhou, kicking off his first visit to the Asian nation since 2004 as he makes further strides to end more than a decade of diplomatic isolation amid Western sanctions.
Assad arrived aboard an Air China plane amid heavy fog, which Chinese state media said “added to the atmosphere of mystery” in a nod to the fact the Syrian leader has seldom been seen outside his country since the start of a civil war that has claimed more than half a million lives.
He is set to attend the opening ceremony of the Asian Games, along with more than a dozen foreign dignitaries, before leading a delegation for a series of meetings in several Chinese cities, including a summit with President Xi Jinping.
Assad will meet Xi on Friday, a day before the Syrian president attends the opening of the games, said a source from the Syrian delegation, which is scheduled to hold other meetings in Beijing on Sunday and Monday.
Being seen alongside China’s president at a regional gathering should add further legitimacy to Syria’s campaign to slowly return to the world stage, during which it has joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2022 and been re-admitted in May to the 22-nation strong Arab League.
Assad last visited China in 2004 to meet then-President Hu Jintao. It was the first visit by a Syrian head of state since diplomatic ties were established in 1956.
China, like Syria’s main allies, Russia and Iran, maintained those ties even as other countries isolated Assad over his brutal crackdown on anti-government demonstrations that erupted in 2011.
Assad’s days-long trip to China will mark one of his longest spells of absence in Syria since his country’s civil war broke out.
Assad faces sanctions imposed by Australia, Canada, Europe, Switzerland and the United States, but efforts to apply multilateral sanctions failed to secure unanimous support at the United Nations Security Council, which China and Russia are members of.
China has on at least eight occasions vetoed U.N. motions condemning Assad’s government and aimed at bringing to an end the decade-old multisided conflict that has sucked in neighbours and world powers.
Unlike Iran and Russia, China has not directly supported the regime’s efforts to regain control of the country.
U.N.-commissioned investigators have said Russian bombing and Iran-backed militias are responsible for the bulk of the more than 200,000 civilian deaths since the war began, which has triggered refugee and drug smuggling crises the Arab League is pushing Damascus to resolve.
Syria has strategic importance for China as it is located between Iraq, which provides about a tenth of China’s oil, Turkey, the terminus of economic corridors stretching across Asia into Europe, and Jordan, which often mediates regional disputes.
While Syria is a relatively small oil producer, its revenue is pivotal to the Assad regime.
In 2008 and 2009, state Chinese energy majors Sinopec Corp, Sinochem and CNPC invested a combined $3 billion in Syria, spurred by a call from Beijing to acquire global oil and gas assets.
Investments included Sinopec’s $2-billion acquisition of Tanganyika Oil, a small producer of heavy oil, and Sinochem’s nearly $900-million purchase of London-headquartered Emerald Energy, whose assets were primarily in Syria and Colombia.
Sinochem stopped operations in Syria in 2011, according to its partner Gulfsands Petroleum.
Around 2014, CNPC, which was involved in producing oil at several small blocks, also ceased production, following European Union sanctions and U.S. deployment to Syria to combat Islamic State, company officials said.
(Reporting by Joe Cash and Ryan Woo; Additional reporting by Kinda Makieh in Damascus and Aizhu Chen in Singapore; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Lincoln Feast)
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