Saturday

15th May 2021

EU-Syria diplomacy in limbo

  • The commission and member states decide who gets EU accreditation (Photo: EUobserver)

The EU foreign service has had no contact with the Syrian regime for almost a year, despite its effort to play a role in international diplomacy on the civil war.

Under EU sanctions law, the head of the European External Action Service (EEAS), Catherine Ashton, could call or even meet with Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moualem, despite the fact he is on an EU asset freeze and visa ban list.

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But EU sources say she has never done so.

Her officials in Brussels could, in theory, also meet with the head of the Syrian embassy to the EU, Rima al-Hakim.

But in practice she is too junior to conduct any EU-Syria talks.

Al-Hakim is the former "third secretary" to Syria's EU ambassador, Mohammed Ayman Soussan, who was suddenly elevated to her post of "charge d'affaires ad interim" when Soussan went back to Syria a few months ago.

The other Syrian diplomats accredited to the EU - Hassan Katramiz, Tamim Madani and Wael Saker - are also "third secretaries," or even more lowly "attaches."

Even when Soussan was in Brussels, his presence was of little use.

According to one EU source, the EEAS "summoned" him just "a couple of times" to complain about Syria's conduct during the past two and a half years of unrest.

The EEAS also evacuated its embassy in Damascus, its only other channel of communication, last December for security reasons.

The empty building is being guarded by locally hired staff. A handful of EEAS diplomats are keeping an eye on Syria from Lebanon, but the rest of its Syria team is back in Brussels.

For its part, Belgium last year stripped all Syrian diplomats of their status in protest over a massacre.

Last week, it re-accredited al-Hakim, in order, it says, to help conduct routine, day-to-day affairs.

But Belgian security services believe that Saker, who is, on paper, an accountant at the Syrian mission, is guilty of waging a campaign of intimidation against Syrian expats in Belgium.

They would like the EU to take away his badge so that they can kick him out.

Meanwhile, for some Syrian expats in Belgium granting diplomatic privileges to any regime officials is morally indefensible.

Hassan Addaher, an expat living in Brussels who has organised rallies against the Syrian government, told this website: "It is shameful the EU has any diplomatic relations with a regime which has killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians, even using chemical weapons."

He added: "The worst thing is that one of them, Saker, is a Syrian intelligence officer who is financing all the activities of pro-regime groups in Belgium."

Neither Belgium nor Addaher seem likely get their way, however.

"We have not reconsidered the accreditation of Syrian diplomats in Brussels in order to keep the channels of communication open. The EU is calling for a negotiated solution to the Syrian crisis," EEAS spokesman Michael Mann told this website.

In terms of EU process, EU countries and the European Commission decide jointly who gets or loses EU diplomatic credentials, while the EEAS conveys the message to the country in question.

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