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Geopolitics

Walid Muallem, The Syrian Art Of Two-Faced Diplomacy

Syria's longtime foreign minister has shown no sign of opening during the Geneva peace talks, which resumed this week. But Walid Muallem may be the world's last best hope.

What's he thinking?
What's he thinking?
Benjamin Barthe

-Opinion-

GENEVA — He is the undisputed chief of the Syrian regime’s delegation at the Geneva peace talks, whose second round started this week. And Walid Muallem, the Syrian foreign minister, is also the perfect incarnation of the “two-faced” approach of Damascus.

On paper, he has the profile of the ideal negotiator: experienced diplomat, former ambassador in Washington, hailing from the capital’s Sunni upper class, familiar with the secrets of power without having blood on his own hands. He is the prototype of those high-ranking civil servants, who, in the opposition’s mind, shall be called upon to take part in the post-Assad “transitional authority,” which is what many hope will be the outcome of the ongoing talks.

But in practice, this plump 73-year-old has shown no signs at all of opening. In each one of his interventions, he has acted as the mouthpiece of the regime’s delay tactics, accusing the rebellion and its foreign sponsors of spreading “terrorism.”

As for a transition authority, he only seems ready to discuss a unified government, opened up to a few figures of the opposition, under the unchanged iron rule of Bashar al-Assad.

“Walid Muallem is a good expert in negotiation, who, for now at least, possesses no authorization to negotiate,” says Peter Harling, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.

Relative suspicion from Assad

His complete dependence on instructions from Damascus was exposed at the end of the first round, on Jan. 31. When the press asked him if the delegation would take part in the next session, the head of Syrian diplomacy sanctimoniously answered, half-moon glasses on his nose, that the decision will be made after consulting the president.

In a move that says it all, it was not him, but his deputy, Fayçal Meqdad, who finally announced a week later that the regime’s envoys would return to Geneva.

Fayçal Meqdad has earned Bashar al-Assad’s trust. The other pillar of the delegation, United Nations representative Bashar Jaafari who is leading talks with the opposition, also appears to be a loyal regime soldier.

Conversely, Walid Muallem was described by an American diplomatic cable disclosed by WikiLeaks in 2006, when he was appointed as head of Syrian diplomacy, as “open-minded" and "pragmatic,” and has always caused relative suspicion from President Assad. “Muallem is left out because he is not servile enough,” a source familiar with the Syrian regime says. “He was chosen to head the delegation because the regime needs his diplomatic skills.”

Familiar with Western chancelleries

In the first months of the uprising, the foreign minister was among those within the Syrian state apparatus who felt ill at ease with the regime’s repression. As the good Sunni public figure that he was, familiar with Western chancelleries — which appreciated his involvement in past secret negotiations with Israel — he feared being placed on a blacklist.

According to a European diplomatic source, he allegedly discussed this with the president and suggested taking appeasement measures. Bashar al-Assad burst out, this source says, saying, “Quiet! We cannot be scared! What are you scared of?”

Since then, each one of Muallem’s appearances abroad has come with rumors about his leaning towards defection. The pro-opposition Arab press recounts, without verification, that his family is placed under surveillance when he travels.

Such was the case in October 2012 during the UN General Assembly, and it was the case in Montreux, on Jan. 22, during the opening of the peace conference before more than 40 foreign delegations.

“He’s a real opportunist, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was tempted, at one point, to defect,” says Sami al-Taki, head of a Dubai-based research agency where Muallem has contributed in the past.

Is it to innoculate himself against the regime’s suspicions that has led him to show an exceeding amount of zeal with each of his appearances? In Switzerland, like in New York, the main parts of his speeches consist of demonizing the leaders of the rebellion. In Geneva, he even took the liberty of criticizing UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who asked him to shorten an endless diatribe that even irritated Sergey Lavrov, the Russian minister of foreign affairs and ally of Damascus. “This arrogance, it isn’t him,” Taki says. “He’s acting like a tough guy to please his master.”

On message

But there is another explanation. One that suggests that Muallem has yielded to the regime’s obsessive complex, and he now only sees the rebellion as a horde of jihadists paid by the Saudis and the Americans. Muallem, who has learned the Baathist doctrine of anti-imperialism, may have convinced himself that the defense of the country justifies any massacre.

It is a persistent message that Assad feels is paying off. After the U.S., it is Turkey’s turn to start getting closer to Iran, his main ally in the region. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Damascus’s bête noire, recently traveled to Tehran. Even Saudi Arabia, the rebels’ main supporter, has started worrying about a possible boomerang of the Syrian dossier.

So as the Syrian president feels his diplomatic possibilities are widening, it is not impossible to imagine that Walid Muallem has started supporting this hardline logic. Why make concessions when all you need to do is to continue to survive?

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