Thursday, October 6, 2011

Syrian disdain for diplomacy has lasted for four decades

Last week the American ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, was attacked by a group of pro-regime supporters while meeting with an opposition figure in Damascus. This came only days after France's ambassador, Eric Chevallier, was assaulted in a similar manner. The violence was, plainly, organised by the Syrian regime.

Confirming this, on Sunday the official Al Baath daily warned that Mr Ford, who has strongly condemned the ongoing repression in Syria, could expect more "unpleasant treatment" if he continued acting in the same way.

Threatening or harming diplomats is one of the more established prohibitions in international relations. When foreign envoys become targets of intimidation or worse, formal ties between states effectively end, with unpredictable consequences. The United States and Iran have yet to reconcile decades after the hostage takeover at the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979. Israel, in turn, reacted in a relatively subdued way to the attack on its embassy in Cairo in September, because it feared the political costs of severing peaceful relations with Egypt.

Yet when it comes to ignoring the immunity of foreign envoys and missions, Syria is in a class of its own. Bashar Al Assad's regime and that of his late father, Hafez, have never hesitated to strike against foreign missions in the pursuit of their political objectives. Nor have they been shy in employing Syrian diplomats to commit crimes.

A leadership that butchers its own people is unlikely to be overly preoccupied with diplomatic niceties, one might argue. True, but foreign governments should have realised much sooner that a regime unconcerned with one of the oldest foundations of international interaction, diplomatic privilege - enshrined in international law through the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 - is also one more apt to butcher its own people.

Take what happened at the Danish Embassy in Syria in February 2006. At the time, Denmark was facing a harsh backlash for the publication by a Danish newspaper of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. A mob, roused by officially-appointed clerics, marched on the embassy offices in Damascus and set it on fire - also damaging the Chilean and Swedish embassies housed in the same building.

In a cable released by WikiLeaks, the US chargĂ© d'affaires in Damascus at the time, Stephen Seche, reported that a Sunni sheikh, whom he described as "one of the most influential Sunni religious figures in Damascus", had virtually confirmed Syrian government "involvement in escalating the situation that led to the violent rioting in Damascus … including communications between [Prime Minister Muhammad Naji Al Otri's] office and the Grand Mufti."

Mr Seche also wrote that the "Danish Ambassador confirmed to us separately that the Minister [of Religious Endowments] had inflamed the situation the day before the rioting, with his remarks at Friday prayers in a mosque."

Most interesting was the sheikh's interpretation of why Syrian officials had encouraged clerics to denounce Denmark in their sermons, "without setting any ceilings on the type of language to be used." He believed the regime was trying to say the following: "'This is what you will have if we allow true democracy and allow Islamists to rule.' To the Islamic street all over the region, the message was that the [Syrian government] is protecting the dignity of Islam, and … allowing Muslims freedom on the streets of Damascus they are not allowed on the streets of Cairo, Amman, or Tunis."

Throughout the years it dominated Lebanon, Syria likely knew about or played a role in bomb or assassination plots against foreign missions. While the motives varied the underlying purpose was usually to guarantee that their governments would not challenge Syria's supremacy in Beirut.

It is difficult, for instance, to imagine that Syria's intelligence services did not have prior knowledge of the suicide car-bombings against the US Embassy complexes in Lebanon in 1983 and 1984, even if these were carried out by suspected pro-Iranian militants. The same can be said of the bombing of the Iraqi embassy in Beirut in December 1981, and the bomb attack against the French embassy in May 1982. And Syria was widely accused of being behind the killing in September 1981 of Louis Delamare, France's ambassador to Lebanon.

Even as Syria's regime has ignored diplomatic conventions, so too has it corrupted its own Foreign Ministry, often employing Syrian embassies in support of its security agenda. In 1983, for example, Syria's embassy staff in East Berlin stored the bomb used by Carlos the Jackal to destroy the French Cultural Centre in West Berlin, with the full knowledge of the ambassador at the time, Faysal Sammaq.

More recently, Syria's foreign minister, Walid Al Muallim, and his ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul Karim Ali, were sanctioned by the US Treasury. And the State Department accused Mr Ali of harassing Syrian opposition figures in Lebanon, and helping organise the disappearance of others.

The beef with Mr Al Muallim is older. In a leaked UN document from 2007, the minister warned UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that the US ambassador in Lebanon, Jeffrey Feltman, had to leave the country. Washington took this as a threat, especially when an embassy vehicle was bombed in January 2008.

One can go on. The respectability once enjoyed by Syria's regime has now been torn away. However, in 41 years in power the Al Assads, both father and son, have shown disdain for foreign representatives whose governments nevertheless continued to confer international respectability on them. It's a shame that it has taken seven months of carnage in Syria to terminate that particular indignity.

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