The Arab uprising that swept across the Middle East, took hold in Syria on March 28th 2011. Ten years on, half a million have lost their lives and 13 million have become refugees, half of these internally displaced as what the UN euphemistically calls IDPs and 5.6 million refugees have fled across Syria’s borders, predominantly to the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. So the news of the death of Walid Al-Muallem, Syria’s foreign minister, who died on this Monday 16th November, will evoke a chasm of emotions.
Born to a Sunni Muslim family in Damascus, Mr Walid Al-Muallem’s professional career saw him work his way up through the foreign ministry. Walid Al-Muallem was appointed Foreign Minister in 2005, at a time when Damascus was isolated by some Arab and many Western nations, as the Syrian government was accused of being behind the assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Harriri. This lead to Syria withdrawing its 25,000 troops from Lebanon, its small neighbour it had occupied for 29 years, initially as a peacekeeping force in the aftermath of the terrible and murderous Lebanese civil war. Ironically that same neighbour is today home to 1.5 million Syrian refugees who have now fled the Syrian civil war.
Though Walid Al-Muallem took the post of Foreign Minister, at a difficult time when Syria was being ostracised by many governments in the Western World, it was only six years later that he became recognised more widely, as he held regular news conferences from Damascus informing the world of his government’s position in regard to the uprising that was unfolding in the streets of Syria – soon to develop into a full blown civil war. As the civil war escalated, Walid Al-Muallem used his considerable diplomatic experience to foster allegiances with Iran and Russia and shore up support for President Bashar Assad’s government.
Walid Al-Muallem studied in Cairo University before returning to Syria to start his diplomatic career in 1964. His missions took him to Saudia Arabia, Madrid, London, Romania and the US. Despite being the US attaché for nine years, Walid remained sceptical of the US role in peace talks with Israel. The career diplomat was not been shy in berating the US for their involvement in the current crisis, accusing them of encouraging the turmoil in the country through their support for anti-government forces.
In 2015, Walid Al-Muallem became the first high ranking Syrian diplomat to say the government was prepared to talk to the opposition, in an attempt to reconcile and bring peace.
Walid Al-Muallem, passed away on Monday, his ailing health having been a contributing factor. The 79 year old was an openly staunch defender of Syria’s Government of which he was a part. The government has not revealed the cause of Walid Al-Muallem’s death.
As a footnote, now that Walid is no longer with us, we at the NCF can add that he was, in his years as Deputy Foreign Minister, a stalwart worker behind the scenes for a peace with Israel that would involve the return of the Golan. He was engaged in proxy discussions through the NCF’s auspices initially with Deputy Defense Ministers Silvan Shalom and Efraim Sneh c.1996. Sadly the talks came to nothing through no fault of Walid’s, nor, let it be said, of Silvan or Efraim.