Syrian President Bashar Assad arrives in China on first visit since the beginning of war in Syria

FILE – Syrian President Bashar Assad, center, waves to his supporters at a polling station during the Presidential elections in the town of Douma, in the eastern Ghouta region, near the Syrian capital Damascus, Syria, May 26, 2021. President Bashar Assad will head to China later this week in his first visit to Beijing since the country’s conflict started 12 years during which China was one of his main backers, his office said Tuesday. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

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 Chinese city of Hangzhou.

Assad’s office said earlier that the Syrian leader was invited by Chinese President Xi Jinping for a summit and would bring with him a high-ranking Syrian delegation.

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 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.

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