Syrian President Bashar Assad Arrives in China on First Visit Since the Beginning of War in Syria

BEIJING (AP) -- Syrian President Bashar Assad arrived in China on Thursday on his first visit to the country since the start of Syria's 12-year conflict during which Beijing has been one of his main backers.

China's foreign ministry said Assad would attend the opening ceremony of the Asian Games, an international sports event beginning Saturday in the eastern city of Hangzhou.

Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said Assad's visit to China would "further deepen political mutual trust and cooperation in various fields between the two countries and push bilateral relations to a new level."

China and Syria have "a tradition of profound friendship," she said, which has "maintained a healthy and stable development" over the years.

Assad and Chinese President Xi Jinping were set to meet for "in-depth talks" on a range of issues, Mao added.

Assad landed in Hangzhou on Thursday, according to Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.

Xi was expected to arrive there on Friday and hold a banquet and other bilateral activities with Assad and other heads of state and government attending the games from countries friendly to China, including Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni, Kuwait's crown prince Sheikh Meshal Al Ahmed Al Jaber and Nepali Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, according to China's foreign ministry.

China has been expanding its reach in the Middle East after mediating a deal in March between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and it continues to support Assad in the Syrian conflict, which has killed half a million people and left large parts of the nation in ruins.

China could play a major role in the future in Syria's reconstruction, which is expected to cost tens of billions of dollars. Syria last year joined China's Belt and Road Initiative in which Beijing expands its influence in developing regions through infrastructure projects.

Assad's office said earlier that the Syrian leader was invited by Xi and would bring with him a high-ranking Syrian delegation.

Syria's worsening economic crisis has led to protests in government-held parts of the country. Syria blames the crisis on Western sanctions and U.S.-backed Kurdish-led fighters who control the country's largest oil fields in the east near the border with Iraq.

Diplomatic contacts between Syria and other Arab countries have intensified following the Feb. 6, earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria killing more than 50,000 people, including over 6,000 in Syria. Assad flew to Saudi Arabia in May where he attended the Arab League summit days after Syria's membership was reinstated in the 22-member league.

Since Syria's conflict began in March 2011 with pro-democracy protests and later turned into a civil war, Iran and Russia have helped Assad regain control of much of the country.

China has used its veto power at the U.N. eight times to stop resolutions against Assad's government, the latest in July 2020.

Assad's last and only visit to China was in 2004, a year after the U.S.-led invasion of neighboring Iraq and at a time when Washington was putting pressure on Syria.