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Bashar al-Assad says relations between Syria and China are ‘on the rise’

President Bashar al-Assad speaks to the Chinese broadcaster Phoenix Television in Damascus, Syria, on Saturday. (Syrian Arab News Agency via Reuters)

In an interview with the private Chinese broadcaster Phoenix Television that aired this weekend, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad offered a warm description of his government's ties with Beijing — a relationship that he said was going to be “on the rise” because China was “a real friend” that could be relied upon.

The interview offered a glimpse of the ties between China and Syria, often overlooked when compared with Russian or Iran — both of which are involved in the Syrian conflict in support of Assad's government. Assad's comments also suggest that his regime's ties with China are strengthening as the situation within Syria and the geopolitics surrounding it shift.

Speaking in English to a reporter with the Hong Kong-based broadcaster in Damascus, the Syrian president touched on key areas of agreement between his government and China, including China's exercise of its veto power last month to help block a U.N. resolution that would have sanctioned Syria for using chemical weapons against its citizens.

“In that veto, China has defended first of all the charter, because the United Nations was created in order to restore stability around the world,” Assad said of the vote, adding that China's use of the veto had created stability and a “political balance” against the West that would be good for small or weak countries.

“Of course, Syria was the headline, the main headline. This is good for Syria, but, again, it’s good for the rest of the world,” Assad said.

He also suggested that China would play a role in rebuilding Syria after the conflict ends. “China can be in every sector with no exception, because we have damage in every sector,” Assad said, noting that the residential sector, infrastructure and industrial projects could use Chinese investment.

Another area of agreement was the threat posed by Uighur militants in Syria, Assad said. Over the past decade, members of the largely Muslim ethnic minority have left their traditional base in western China and headed to the Middle East. Some have become involved in extremism, even joining groups such as the Islamic State: A video released by the militant group last month prominently featured Uighur fighters and warned China that it, too, could become a target.

Syria said there had been “crucial” cooperation between Syrian and Chinese intelligence in this area and argued that Uighurs had entered Syria through Turkey and “have the support of the Turkish government.”

China and Syria have long had a significant trade relationship, and China has maintained its embassy in Damascus through the ongoing war. However, until recently, China's engagement was focused largely on helping foster peace negotiations, and it had taken a public stance of “noninterference” in Syrian affairs.

Last year, however, things began to shift, with an official visit to Damascus by a Chinese navy rear admiral and pledges of military training and other support. Experts have suggested that China is hoping to play a more prominent role in the Syria crisis, in part because of long-standing concerns about Uighur militancy but also a hope that both countries can strengthen trading routes for the future.

What role the new U.S. administration plays in this, if any, isn't clear. While President Trump has suggested a willingness to rethink positions on Syria and Russia, he remains skeptical of China. His ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, called the use of the veto by China and Russia during the Syria vote last month “outrageous and indefensible.”

Speaking to Phoenix, Assad suggested that he was not sure what to make of Trump, adding that U.S. forces operating in Syria were “invaders.”

Assad was more hopeful about the relationship with China. Noting that his son Kareem had previously been learning Chinese, the Syrian leader suggested that the language was a good choice as China was a “rising power.” Speaking of the bilateral relationship, Assad said, “It was good, but it’s going to be on the rise because when a country like China proves that it’s a real friend, a friend that you can rely on, it’s very natural to have better relation on the popular level, not only on the formal level.”

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