Longtime Syrian foreign minister Moallem, unswerving Assad loyalist, dies at 79

Served as envoy to US during Syria’s talks with Israel in 1990s; in 2006, he wished he could join Hezbollah fighting against Israel

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem speaks during a press conference, in Damascus, Syria, June 23, 2020 (SANA via AP)
In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem speaks during a press conference, in Damascus, Syria, June 23, 2020 (SANA via AP)

Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, a career diplomat who became one of the country’s most prominent faces to the outside world during the bloody Syrian civil war, died Monday. He was 79.

Al-Moallem, who served as ambassador to Washington for nine years starting in 1990 during Syria’s on-and-off peace talks with Israel, was a close confidant of Assad known for his loyalty and hardline position against the opposition.

During the current conflict, he often held news conferences in Damascus detailing the Syrian government’s position. Unwavering in the face of international criticism, he repeatedly vowed that the opposition, which he said was part of a Western conspiracy against Syria for its anti-Israel stances, would be crushed.

Assad’s forces have carried out atrocities, targeting civilians and using banned chemical weapons, according to Western powers and international organizations. The war in Syria has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it erupted in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

A short and portly man with white hair, al-Moallem’s health was said to be deteriorating in recent years. In 2014, he underwent heart surgery in Lebanon. The state-run SANA news agency reported his death, without immediately offering a cause.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, left and his Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, center, attend the opening session of the annual summit of the Arab league at the King Abdul Aziz Conventional Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 28, 2007. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

Born to a Sunni Muslim family in Damascus in 1941, al-Moallem attended public schools in Syria and later traveled to Egypt, where he studied at Cairo University, graduating in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in economics.

He returned to Syria and began work at the foreign ministry in 1964, rising to the top post in 2005.

His first mission outside the country as a diplomat in the 1960s was to open the Syrian Embassy in the African nation of Tanzania. In 1966 he moved to work in the Syrian Embassy in the Saudi city of Jiddah and a year later he moved to the Syrian Embassy in Madrid.

In 1972, he headed the Syrian mission to London and in 1975 moved to Romania, where he spent five years as ambassador. He then returned to Damascus, where he headed the ministry’s documentation office until 1984, when he was named as the head of the foreign minister’s office.

He was appointed as Syria’s ambassador to Washington in 1990, spending nine years in the US. During that time Syria held several rounds of peace talks with Israel.

In 2005, he was appointed foreign minister at a time when Damascus was isolated by Arab and Western nations following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Many Lebanese, Arabs and Western governments blamed Syria for the massive blast that killed Hariri — accusations that Damascus repeatedly denied. Syria was forced to end nearly three decades of domination and military presence in its smaller neighbor and pulled out its troops in April that year.

In 2006, al-Moallem became the most senior politician to visit Lebanon after Syrian troops withdrew. He attended an Arab foreign ministers meeting during the 34-day war between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah terror group, a strong ally of Syria.

“I wish I were a fighter with the resistance,” al-Moallem said in Beirut at the time, triggering criticism from anti-Syrian Lebanese activists who poked fun at him as being overweight and unfit to fight.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, enter a hall during their meeting in Moscow, Russia, Dec. 23, 2019.(AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

After the uprising against Assad began in March 2011, al-Moallem was tasked with holding news conferences in Damascus to defend the government’s position. He traveled regularly to Moscow and Iran, key backers of the Syrian government, to meet with officials there.

During a news conference a year after the conflict began, al-Moallem was asked to comment about then French foreign minister Alain Juppe’s comment that the regime’s days were numbered.

Al-Moallem answered with a smile on his face: “If Mr. Juppe believes that the days of the regime are numbered I tell him, wait and you will see.”

“This is if God gives him a long age,” al-Moallem said.

In February 2013, he was the first Syrian official to say during a visit to Moscow that the government was ready to hold talks even with those “who carried arms.”

In early 2014, he headed Syria’s negotiating team during two rounds of peace talks with the opposition in Switzerland. The talks, which eventually collapsed, marked the first time that members of the Syrian government sat face-to-face with Syrian opposition figures.

Al-Moallem was widely criticized for a rambling speech he gave at the start of Syria’s peace conference in Montreux, Switzerland. Then UN chief Ban Ki-moon repeatedly asked him to step away from the podium when he exceeded his time limit.

Al-Moallem ignored Ban’s pleas, setting off a tense exchange that showed the tensions in trying to resolve Syria’s bloody conflict.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, right, sits with the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in Damascus, April 24, 2007 (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi)

“You live in New York. I live in Syria,” al-Moallem snapped. “I have the right to give the Syrian version here in this forum. After three years of suffering, this is my right.”

Al-Moallem then proceeded with his speech, saying he had a few minutes left. Ban asked him to keep his promise.

“Syria always keeps its promises,” al-Moallem replied, triggering approving laughter from the Syrian government delegation behind him and a grin from Ban.

In 2017, al-Moallem accused Israel of supporting “terror gangs” fighting against the Syrian regime in a speech at the United Nations General Assembly and said Syrian government forces will be remembered as heroes for their role in the war.

“When this unjust war in Syria is over, the Syrian army will go down in history as the army that heroically defeated, along with its supported forces and its allies, the terrorists that came to Syria from many countries,” he said.

This photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows medical staff treating a boy following a suspected chemical attack on his town of al-Khalidiya, in Aleppo, Syria, Nov. 24, 2018 (SANA via AP)

In 2019, al-Moallem accused Israel of starting “another phase of escalation” through its repeated attacks on Syrian territory and the territory of other neighboring countries, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

Al-Moallem said Israel’s air campaign which the IDF says is intended to keep Iranian forces and allied militias from gaining a foothold in the area, had been launched under “false pretexts.”

Al-Moallem also rejected the idea that the Syrian conflict would force the government to forfeit its “inalienable right” to recover the Golan Heights.

Israel captured the strategically important high plateau during the 1967 Six Day Way and extended its laws over the territory in 1980, a move that was condemned at the time by the international community, including the US. The Trump administration recognized the Golan Heights as Israeli in 2019.

“It is a delusion to think that the decisions of the US administration on the sovereignty over the Golan would alter historical and geographical facts or the provisions of international law,” al-Moallem stressed.

“The Golan has been and will forever be part of Syria,” he said.

After the United States formally recognized Israeli sovereignty over the plateau, he threatened that Syria will not shy away from using force to reconquer “every inch” of the Golan Heights.

Al-Moallem is survived by his wife, Sawsan Khayat and three children, Tarek, Shatha and Khaled.

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