Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will visit China starting Thursday, his office said, his first trip to the allied country since before the Syrian civil war broke out more than a dozen years ago.
China will be the third non-Arab country Assad visits during the conflict, which has killed more than 500,000 people, displaced millions and hit the country’s infrastructure and industry.
“In response to an official invitation” from Chinese President Xi Jinping, Assad and his wife “will visit China starting Thursday,” the presidency said in a statement.
“The visit will include a number of meetings and events” in Beijing and Hangzhou, the statement said on Tuesday, adding that Assad would be accompanied by “a political and economic delegation”.
The pro-government newspaper Al-Watan said Assad was expected to attend the opening of the Asian Games in Hangzhou on September 23.
Beijing has provided Damascus with international support, especially in the UN Security Council, where it has repeatedly abstained from passing resolutions against Damascus.
Officials from both countries have also made visits over the years.
The announcement comes six months after a surprise Chinese-brokered deal saw old regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran agree to restore diplomatic ties and reopen their respective embassies.
The milestone sparked a wave of diplomacy in the Middle East, where Arab aid to Assad, an ally of Iran, had already accelerated after a deadly earthquake struck Syria and Turkey on February 6.
After the deal, Riyadh defended Syria’s return to the Arab fold at a summit in Saudi Arabia in May, ending more than a decade of Damascus’ regional isolation.
China has expanded its involvement in the Middle East, especially as it seeks to promote its extensive Belt and Road infrastructure and trade initiative.
Syria announced in January 2022 that it would join the initiative, after Assad discussed the issue with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Damascus the year before.
In 2019, Wang told then-Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, who was visiting Beijing, that China “strongly supports Syria’s economic reconstruction” and its efforts to “fight terrorism.”
With support from Moscow and Tehran, Damascus has regained much of the territory it lost to rebels early in the conflict.
Years of pressure from China and Russia in the UN Security Council have also disrupted a cross-border aid mechanism to the rebel-held northwest, with Beijing and Moscow arguing the UN authorization violated Syria’s sovereignty.
In June, at the UN General Assembly, China, along with Syria, Russia and Iran, objected to the creation of an independent body to clarify the fate of thousands of people missing since the outbreak of the Syrian war.