Late Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem was laid to rest on Monday. The “soft face” of the regime and the man with the “velvet statements” was one of the regime’s staunchest supporters even as it suppressed a peaceful uprising that devolved into a bloody conflict that has been raging for nearly a decade.
Muallem died as the Assad regime marked 50 years since coming to power through the Corrective Movement. Sine then, Syria has only known three foreign ministers, with Muallem the only one to pass away without defecting from the regime or being removed from his post.
The longtime supporter of the regime passed away after a short fight with cancer. He already had a history of heart problems.
His death coincided with president Bashar Assad’s introduction of political, security and media changes that brought figures he is close with deeper into his inner circle. Among them is journalist Luna al-Shibl, who was appointed “special aide at the presidency.” She will still retain her position as director of press and political bureau.
With Muallem’s passing, attention will now be turned to his successor as Syria remains in the grips of a power struggle between Russia, Iran and other regional and international players. Western diplomats who recently visited Damascus believe that deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad leans close to Iran. Another candidate is Ayman Sousan, the assistant foreign minister, and Bashar al-Jaafari, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations. Sousan is believed to be close to the Russians, while Jaafari leans more towards Iran.
Moreover, the new foreign minister will have to take on the role of holding talks with western countries and negotiations with Tel Aviv. Muallem was one of the most prominent Syrian negotiators who had held open and covert talks with Israel.
Muallem, who was commonly known in Syria as “Abou Tarik”, was born on July 17, 1941. He went to school in Damascus and Tartus, before enrolling at Cairo University and graduating with a degree in economics in 1963. His return to Damascus later that year coincided with the rise of the Baath party and its ensuing coup.
He joined the diplomatic corps and was appointed to various embassies. He served as ambassador to Romania between 1975 and 1980. Then Foreign Minister Abdul Halim Khaddam was not impressed with him and subsequently sent him off to work at the ministry’s archive department. Muallem used that time to write some books. He would write four throughout his lifetime.
Farouk al-Sharaa replaced Khaddam, who was appointed vice president in 1984. Muallem was then appointed as head of the private offices department, one of the most significant in the ministry.
With the launch of Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations in 1991, he was appointed ambassador to the United States, a post he retained until 1999. During this time, he held and attended a series of secret meetings with Israeli politicians and military figures, impressing the Americans, Europeans and Arab countries.
Then president Hafez Assad recalled him abruptly from Washington, possibly over his exaggeration of claims with the Israelis. For a short while Muallem would be marginalized in Damascus before being appointed aide and then deputy foreign minister. He would oversee efforts aimed at reaching “settlements” in Lebanon. He was among the last Syrian officials to speak to slain Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Hariri was assassinated in a major car bombing in Beirut on February 14, 2005. The murder is widely blamed on Syria, an allegation it has repeatedly denied. In February 2006, Muallem was appointed foreign minister, succeeding Sharaa, who was named vice president, replacing Khaddam who had defected from the regime.
‘Hawks’ and ‘pigeons’
Since becoming foreign minister, Muallem would become known for his “pragmatism” or as a “pigeon” among the “hawks” led by Sharaa. Sharaa in turn had inherited this role from the “brusque Khaddam”.
Muallem was an advocate of establishing relations with the West and Arab countries. He believed in having a “balanced” relationship with Iran. These stances led many opposition figures to believe that Muallem would defect from the regime with the eruption of the 2011 protests.
They were wrong. In fact, Muallem would emerge as one of the staunchest defenders of Damascus. He became the face of the regime, holding regular press conferences and talks with Moscow and Tehran, Damascus’ main allies. He managed to retain his position since then, even amid government reshuffles over the years.
Muallem frequently stressed that Assad would remain in his position “as long as the people wanted it.” He was among the first officials to describe the opponents of the regime as “terrorists” and was one of the fiercest critics of Kurdish fighters for receiving support from Washington.
Throughout his long rambling press conferences, he always described the war in Syria as a “foreign conspiracy.” He was known for his dismissive and mocking attitude of the West that had slapped sanctions on Syria and its officials. He spoke in a soft tone, exuding calm even during the toughest days of the conflict. During the conflict, his foreign trips became limited to Russia, Iran, Muscat and the United Nations headquarters in New York.
The opposition had met Muallem’s statements with criticism and ridicule, once mocking his claims that he wanted to “wipe Europe off the map.”
In August 2011, Washington imposed sanctions on the minister, whom it said was using the excuse of a foreign conspiracy on Syria in order to conceal the terrorist acts of the regime and spread lies. An American official at the time described him as the liaison between Damascus and Tehran. A year later, the Europeans would slap him with their own sanctions for the violent repression of protests in Damascus.
Muallem’s last public appearance was at the opening of an international refugee conference last Wednesday in Damascus, when he appeared to be in ill health. The following day, he did not attend the closing ceremony of the event, which was co-hosted with Russia.
In Tehran, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif expressed his condolences, praising Muallem for his “important role” in defending Syria’s national interests and security, the official IRNA news agency reported.
Russian deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov hailed Muallem as a diplomat who “understood the importance of Syrian-Russian relations.”
“We have lost a very reliable partner and sincere friend,” said Bogdanov, who was formerly stationed in Damascus. He stressed that he had been in “almost constant contact” with Muallem in the 35 years he had known him.
Oman, the sole Gulf country to keep diplomatic ties with Syria, offered its condolences to Syria, as did Lebanese President Michel Aoun.
The Syrian Observer has not verified the content of this story. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.