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Syrian leader expected to seek China's support in rebuilding economy in meeting with Xi Jinping, analysts say

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will begin a visit to China on Thursday, and experts said his meeting with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping would focus on the Middle Eastern country's economic reconstruction.

Assad's office said on Tuesday that the trip, which was "in response to an official invitation" from Xi, would include stops in the capital Beijing and the eastern city of Hangzhou, where the Asian Games will open on Friday.

The visit will be Assad's first to Beijing since Syria's civil war started in 2011. China has backed Damascus in the conflict but denied direct military involvement.

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Wang Jin, an associate professor at the Institute of Middle East Studies at China's Northwest University, said Assad's meeting with Xi would focus on Syria's economic reconstruction while also calling on Beijing to engage more in the country's political reconciliation.

"The Syrian regime hopes China can play a more important role in pushing the reconciliation of different political factions in the country," Wang said.

But he added the more direct reason to increase engagement with China would be to ease Syria's economic crisis.

"Assad's more immediate concern is the economic issue," he said, noting that in July and August, Syria's economic data worsened and the rate of currency devaluation accelerated.

"So it needs to be able to get further [with Beijing] to get China's support and help, especially investment and financial support."

China is seeking a more proactive role in the Middle East, having brokered a historic peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March. After the two countries restored diplomatic relations, Iran joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation while Saudi Arabia became a dialogue partner of the China-led security pact.

China could play an important role in Syria, especially on the economic front. Last year, Syria became a member of the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing's global infrastructure project, in a move that is expected to "strengthen friendly cooperation between China and Syria in fields such as infrastructure and electricity", according to state-run news agency Xinhua.

Syria's GDP shrank dramatically to only US$11.16 billion in 2020 - just 4.4 per cent of its GDP in 2010, the year before the civil war started, according to the World Bank. The Syrian pound also hit a record low against the US dollar this year.

In February, a fatal earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria sparked another humanitarian crisis in the country, killing more than 7,000 people and leaving the war-torn country with US$5.1 billion in losses.

Unlike Russia and Iran, which have sent direct military aid to help Assad regain control of much of the country by countering US-backed forces, China's support for Syria's government has remained largely on the diplomatic level.

China has used its veto power at the United Nations eight times to stop resolutions against Assad's government, the latest of which came in July 2020.

Since 2013, thousands of Uygurs have reportedly travelled to Syria from China's far western region of Xinjiang to train with the militant group Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) and fight alongside al-Qaeda, playing key roles in several battles and creating a new sticking point for Beijing's dealings with Damascus.

A Chinese delegation reportedly visited Idlib in northwestern Syria in 2021 to collect information about TIP, whose proxy has been linked to separatist activities in Xinjiang. The delegation included officers from China's Ministry of State Security.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2023 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2023. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.