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


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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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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