China and Syria signed a “strategic partnership” on Friday as Beijing pledged to help rebuild the war-torn country and overturn US and European-led sanctions against Damascus.
China's President Xi Jinping announced the partnership after hosting his Syrian counterpart Bashar Al Assad in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, which is staging the Asian Games.
A readout from the meeting, published by Chinese state media, said "China opposes interference by external forces in Syria's internal affairs... and urges all relevant countries to lift illegal unilateral sanctions."
The strategic co-operation agreement was one of three documents signed during the meeting, but a US official told The National on Friday that it would continue to uphold stringent sanctions against Damascus, regardless of any deals.
Mr Al Assad, who is on an official visit to China in an effort to shore up international support after more than a decade of isolation, was quoted by Syrian state media as thanking Mr Xi for standing by the Syrian people “during the crisis and suffering”.
The Syrian leader expressed hope that his meeting with Mr Xi would be the basis for “wide-ranging and long-term strategic co-operation in all fields” between the two countries.
Mr Xi said bilateral ties have stood “the test of changes in the international situation and their friendship has grown stronger”.
China will “support Syria's reintegration and restoration of ties with the rest of the Middle East”, said Mr Xi.
“In the face of the unstable and uncertain international situation, China is willing to work with Syria to firmly support each other … and jointly safeguard international fairness and justice.”
A political settlement is the only way forward to restoring peace in Syria, added Mr Xi.
The Chinese President said his country would also “support the government's reconstruction efforts and strengthen its fight against terrorism”.
However, following the meeting, the US warned that countries must observe international sanctions against the Syrian regime.
Speaking exclusively to The National, an official with the US National Security Council said: “If the Syrian regime wants sanctions removed, Damascus should implement verifiable, irreversible reforms and advance the UN-backed political process as opposed to seeking outside assistance.”
Such assistance, the official said, “will not materialise while our sanctions remain in place”. The US and Europe maintain stringent sanctions on Syrian regime officials, whom they accuse of numerous human rights abuses.
While humanitarian aid is exempted by UN Security Council Resolution 2664 passed in December last year, close ties between regime figures and state-run companies mean sanctions have affected many sectors of the economy.
“This development is nothing new,” the official said.
“China has protected Syria in the UN Security Council for years. Our policy regarding the Assad regime remains intact. US sanctions against Syria remain in place and will be enforced.”
Mr Al Assad is expected to attend the opening ceremony of the Asian Games on Saturday.
The event will also be attended by leaders from Kuwait, Cambodia and Nepal.
Decade of isolation
Mr Al Assad's regime has been shunned by the international community since he cracked down on protesters in 2011, sparking a civil war that has lasted more than a decade and destroyed much of the country.
Syria was subsequently suspended from the Arab League and hit by western sanctions.
Mr Al Assad's high-profile visit to China is part of a campaign to break out of that isolation, according to Mona Yacoubian, senior adviser at the US Institute of Peace federal institution.
“While China maintained ties to the Syrian regime throughout the past 12 years of conflict, Arab countries' moves to restore diplomatic ties, including most notably Syria's readmission to the Arab League in May, paved the way for China to engage Mr Al Assad in this high-profile visit,” Ms Yacoubian told The National.
“For its part, Beijing's move to invite Assad comes as part of China's deepening engagement in the Middle East. At the same time, the trip is largely symbolic,” she said.
Mr Al Assad is expected to ask for economic assistance from China, which could play a major role in Syria's future reconstruction.
His last visit to China was in 2004, a year after the US-led invasion of neighbouring Iraq and at a time when Washington was putting pressure on Syria.
China has recently increased its diplomatic influence in the Arab world, most notably by helping to broker a deal to restore ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March. Back-channel talks between the two countries were held in Iraq, Jordan and Oman.